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Every CEO is a sales rep

Jul 1, 2009 12:00 AM

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Like it or not, the current state of the economy and changes in buyer-seller relationships during the past several years have, more than ever, put every CEO in the role of sales representative. I have spoken to some CEOs who truly believe their respective companies are customer-centric, but who do not make customer contact part of their everyday responsibilities. Many of their customers are unlikely to accept the explanation from a CEO that, “My background is in finance or production and I'm uncomfortable around customers,” or, “This is what I pay salespeople to do.”

Customer-centrism is a cultural condition, usually created and always sustained by the behavior and leadership of an organization. It is difficult, if not impossible, to delegate a culture or value system. Gut-level belief that business is all about creation and strengthening of customer relationships is at the heart of a business' success. This is especially true when both a graphic arts company and each of its customers (and prospective customers) is seeking meaningful differentiation.

We have entered an ‘Age of Customization’

This pertains to treatment of customers — information and affinity between buyer and seller — not simply to products and services. Off-the-shelf answers no longer suffice.

“We don't do that,” is disappearing. In fact, I tell clients that if I were CEO of a graphic arts manufacturer or distributor, I would deal harshly with any staff member who offered this response to a customer's request without first informing me.

This scenario suggests an even bigger issue: the role of the CEO in organizing and supervising the everyday flow of information to and from the marketplace, a process in which most salespeople are neither trained nor inclined to engage. My blood pressure knows no limits when I ask a sales rep, “What does this customer do?” and the answer is “Lots of 2-color work,” or, “Direct mail.” I'm not criticizing the salespeople. Those who offer this response are simply responding to a compensation plan that encourages and rewards short-term performance.

The graphic arts industry serves all other industries. By definition, ongoing profitability demands that the CEO lead an organization in understanding the objectives, demands and strategy of individual, high-potential accounts. The notion of studying vertical markets and assuming that all organizations in a market have the same objectives, demands, and strategy is rapidly dying as organizations in every industry — including print — need to address competitive differentiation as a life-or-death issue.

Selling is an organizational activity

A customized third-party survey of the entire customer base every 12 to 16 months is the least a CEO should authorize. The scorecard of performance is customer perceptions. An effective survey should be tailored specifically to the sponsoring company, and about half of the questions should demand written comments.

The CEO should meet his or her counterparts at customers' organizations in the spirit of incremental improvement and to review the relationship with important customers. Information about plans for the coming year should be shared; that exchange frequently results in opportunities for both parties. Like the survey of the entire account portfolio, the annual relationship review with selected accounts should be a basic, important part of CEO activities. Instead, many CEOs meet customers' management on only two occasions: selling a new account and fighting to keep an account in the face of a problem or disagreement.

Customer visits to a graphic arts company are an occasion to gather information about the visitors' respective businesses. New accounts should be greeted by the CEO upon receipt of the first order and, three months or so later, questioned about the reason(s) the customer came aboard. Consideration should be given to systematic de-briefing of staff members with regular customer contact, even delivery personnel.

The CEO also should be the advocate for management-to-management communication with every existing and prospective account at least once a month. The vehicle may be an informational newsletter, seminar, capabilities mailing or pricing advisory. Frequency of contact is as important as the content.

It's 2009, and selling is an organizational activity. Everyone in a print company is in a direct position to win or lose accounts. The CEO is not immune to this generalization. In fact, a commitment from the CEO to a customer might have greater influence and impact than anything else that can be done in the strategic selling process.

Dick Gorelick is president of Gorelick & Associates and the Graphic Arts Sales Foundation. He can be reached at