Companies ≠ Customers

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Just as you wouldn’t confuse your job with your career, don’t confuse companies and customers. You might have a list of companies that make up your territory, but it is always the people at these companies that buy. Here’s the simple math:

Companies ≠ People

Customers = People

Over the course of your rich and varied sales career, you will likely have the good fortune to meet and get to know an overwhelming number of prospects, partners and customers. Chances are that some of them will turn into great long-term friendships and hopefully most have the promise to become future working relationships. Regardless, they will inevitably bounce around among companies and industries over the years. They might get promoted or need a recommendation. Or they may go work for one of your competitors. Or perhaps provide you with a recommendation or a reference. Anything is possible.

It’s easy to fixate on the company as ‘the customer.’ For most of us in sales, the company is the defining entity, part (or all) of one’s sales territory, and ultimately the target, after all. It makes sense to equate someone in the company as the company, but it’s not that simple. People get recruited, fired, move, get fed up and quit. Even a CEO, the face of the company, can go somewhere else. (Some of them can be odd, narcissistic and even sociopathic, but even sociopaths are people. Right?)

This also means that there’s an excellent chance you’ll run into these people throughout the arc of your career. Personally, I’ve been hired by past customers, and I’ve frequently been referred to other customers by past customers. I’ve even had a customer invest in my business.

You Never Know

In one memorable example, I found myself in the midst of an especially heated, contentious negotiation on what was one of the largest and most strategic deals of my career. I’d developed several solid relationships in the account, and in partnership with one fellow in particular had devised the framework for an exclusive customer/vendor affiliation. The proposed deal promised to dramatically increase our revenues, strategically position us with one of the largest health plans in the country and deal a significant blow to several competitors. All at once. And after a series of meetings, presentations and proposals, both sides agreed that this new, bigger relationship made sense and that a deal should be hammered out.

As the negotiations played out and we worked through the myriad details, my primary counterpart became increasingly adversarial and ultimately opposed to the deal terms. But the executive team above him wanted this done, and over the ensuing weeks he was sidelined unceremoniously from the negotiations. In the process, the friendly relationship we had established over the years became frayed and he ultimately left the company.

The story could easily end right there. Instead, we ran into each other awkwardly years later at an industry conference. Eventually, the conversation steered itself to that deal and our falling out. I ended up getting a much better perspective of the internal politics that he was enduring at the time and the implications of the deal. That chance interaction was the catalyst to reestablish our relationship, and he has since become one of my closest business friendships, something that would have been impossible to predict as I was consumed with one of the largest deals of my career.

People Have Lives

In your daily sales efforts, keep in mind that your customers are people that go home to screaming kids and obligatory soccer games, have cats to feed, need to mow the lawn, have debts and ailing parents, and are hooked on Game of Thrones. So maybe it’s not about you. Maybe it’s the company culture that best explains their actions. Or something else entirely. And chances are they won’t always be at that company.

When it comes to people, take the long view. Ultimately, it’s not all business.

Sometimes it’s personal.

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