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Sales Tips for Dealing with Customers Who "Graduate"

Updated on November 24, 2014
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Heidi Thorne is an author and business speaker specializing in sales and marketing topics for coaches, consultants and solopreneurs.

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Was chatting with a long-time networking friend about the future of her business. One of the issues she was facing is the situation where customers "graduate." These customers have gotten benefits from doing business with her and are ready to move on to bigger and different adventures. What's interesting is that this conversation produced flashes of dé jà vu for me. Had almost identical conversations with a few other friends. And I have faced this situation myself.

Essentially, these customers are "graduating" from doing business with a business. They no longer need what is offered. Or maybe they need something similar, but a more intense, expanded or different version of it. Either way, this can be very troubling, especially for small business owners, since it usually means that these customers are leaving... along with their sales revenues.

Even more unsettling is that sometimes customers don't want to graduate either! They like dealing with the company or salesperson and want that trusted relationship to continue forever, too.

Unfortunately, this scenario is inevitable. The dream of lifelong customers, vendors and products is a myth. Knowing what to do to help customers (and the business!) graduate is a challenge. But it can be done in ways that make graduation the celebration and developmental experience it needs to be.

Why and When Customers Graduate

What are the trigger events that signal when a customer is ready to graduate either to a higher level of purchasing or away from a business?

  • Projects and Requests Become More Frequent, Larger or Complex. Getting a request from a longstanding customer for a huge score type deal or project, or receiving a bunch of orders in rapid fire from the same customer, can be very gratifying. It usually signals a high level of trust and confidence in the company to fill these needs. But fulfilling these requests can often stretch the capabilities and limits of the company, especially if it's a small or micro business.This can lead to attempts to sell the impossible or even turn customer service into servitude. Click here for more on problems caused by selling the impossible.
  • Complaints Increase. Receiving negative feedback and complaints from regular, usually happy, customers are always cause for concern. If the reasons cannot be traced to a specific breakdown in operations, investigate if the complaints deal with unmet expectations. Customers may be expecting what cannot be delivered by the business. Example: If a company's normal turnaround time for an order is five days and customers are now expecting it in two, customers' needs and demands could be changing.
  • Contacts Change. When a customer is growing, merging or getting acquired, they may have a seemingly continuous shuffling of personnel. The comfortable contacts that a salesperson may have relied upon in the past can move to new positions or even leave the company entirely. Even if the same contacts stay employed there, they may have a whole new set of demands in the new, expanding regime. In either case, the normal buys from this customer can increase dramatically, be totally obliterated or get handled in a completely different way than in the past.
  • Sales Exodus. In longstanding relationships with customers, salespeople and business owners have a pretty good idea of buying patterns. If the buying pace drops significantly, especially for specific product or service lines, salespeople need to determine if the exodus can be attributed to expanding or different requirements. Sometimes this may be due to the fact that what is being sold is coming to the end of its product life cycle, meaning a "graduation" for both the customer and the selling company. Click here to learn more about product life cycles.

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Questions to Help Look More Insightfully at Business Change

Moving Upward, Outward and Forward

Though growth is usually good, it does mean saying goodbye to the past. This can be unsettling for both customers and those who sell to them. But it needs to be seen as a natural and inevitable part of being in business.

Some tips for making graduation a good thing for everyone in the sales loop:

  • Don't Take It Personally. Ironically, salespeople can feel defeated when customers graduate and no longer need them. Don't take what's happening personally. Take it as a signal to prepare for change.
  • Don't Reinvent for Each Customer. Fearing the loss of a book of business, business owners and salespeople can slip into the mode of reinventing their offerings every time they receive expanded, off-the-menu customer demands. This can be counterproductive and unprofitable. Doing a profit and loss analysis can assist in determining the feasibility of serving these changing needs.
  • Explore Tiered Offerings. If customers' expanding demands could reasonably be met without overtaxing the company's resources, explore if offering tiered levels of products and services could help retain customers for longer. This would probably not be done for an individual customer with changing needs, but could be considered for scenarios in which several customers or an entire market segment is graduating to greater and expanded expectations. A thorough profit and loss, sales forecast and feasibility study—which may entail enlisting the help of outside consultants—is essential for evaluating the possibilities.
  • Be Honest with an Eye Towards the Future. If a customer's growing demands cannot be met, say so! Struggling to do the impossible can lead to unhappy customers who leave anyway due to negative experiences. Leave on good terms. Remember that happy former customers can be sources for referrals and, who knows, they may have other needs in the future that could be a good fit.

Disclaimer: The author/publisher has used best efforts in preparation of this article. No representations or warranties for its contents, either expressed or implied, are offered or allowed and all parties disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for your particular purpose. The advice, strategies and recommendations presented herein may not be suitable for you, your situation or business. Consult with a professional adviser where and when appropriate. The author/publisher shall not be liable for any loss of profit or any other damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential, or other damages. So by reading and using this information, you accept this risk.

© 2014 Heidi Thorne

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    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 2 years ago from USA

      Hi Heidi! This is a really thoughtful hub. I think a lot of businesses don't realize that some portion of your customers will always outgrow, move on, or no longer need your services. And that's ok as long as you can replace them with new customers. Hopefully, the customers that have outgrown you will continue to serve as ambassadors for your business in the community and speak highly of their experience with your services. Great hub! Voted up and pinned!!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi purl3agony! A lot of businesses don't realize this... until it's too late and they haven't yet prepared for the natural "churn and turn" of customers. Have to admit I learned the hard way, too. We gotta keep filling the sales pipeline even when things are good. Thanks so much for adding to the conversation and sharing! Have a beautiful weekend!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      All great points, Heidi! Growth can be painful...there is a truth many small businesses don't realize but is, in fact, very accurate. I know it happened to me, and the adjustment period was not a pleasant one.

      Have a great weekend!

    • btrbell profile image

      Randi Benlulu 2 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      This is very interesting, Heidi with sound and sensible advice. As with anything, it can be hard to "accept" growth and change. These are great tips to make it easier! Up++

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Oh, btrbell, it is soooo hard to accept change, even when it's a good thing! Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Have a lovely weekend!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Billybuc, you and I definitely need an extended Starbucks run to talk about all the lessons we've learned from being in business. :) Graduating customers happened to me, too. And I'm working with a couple of clients who are on that graduation edge. It's tough even if it's a positive move. What do they say? When one door closes... Always gotta keep working on opening those new doors. Thanks so much for adding your experience to the conversation. Happy Weekend!

    • travmaj profile image

      travmaj 2 years ago from australia

      Very sound advice for business owners. How difficult it is for all -owners and customers. Accepting change and knowing how to cope with all must be difficult. Keeping ahead of trends must be difficult. Thanks for a most interesting piece...

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi travmaj! You make a great point in that keeping tabs on trends is essential. While we may not like what the trends tell us, at least we can be prepared for the change ahead. Thanks so much for taking a moment of your weekend to stop by and comment! Cheers!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      People typically appreciate honesty, so being forthright with them about not being able to handle their needs probably works out best for everyone in the long run.

    • heidithorne profile image
      Author

      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      So agree, FlourishAnyway! I've had to do that on several occasions in the promotional business. Luckily, I've usually been able to refer them to some excellent other sources in my network. Sometimes they've still be able to do other project with me. Other times, they've completely moved on. But either way, everyone got what they needed. That's another aspect of being prepared for the graduation scenario: Build your network! Thanks so much for stopping by and adding that important exclamation point to the conversation! Have a wonderful weekend!

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