So, you think you’ve figured out how to salvage your TechShare program?” asked Neil, Mike’s CEO.

TechShare is ‘my’ program, is it? Mike thought. The Action Selling ® system I introduced doubled our growth rate, so that’s ‘ours.’ TechShare tanked, so it’s mine. Why doesn’t this surprise me?

But Mike pushed that thought aside in favor of a more pressing one: Oh, no you don’t, Neil. You’re asking me to present you with my solution—to make a pitch. Thanks to a certain master-level salesperson in Arizona, I know better. We’re at the stage where I ask the questions and you’ll do most of the talking. But I will give you a teaser, just to let you know that this won’t be an ordinary conversation.

“Like I said when I asked for this meeting, I have some ideas,” Mike replied. “I’d like to get your thinking on them. You know about my trip to Phoenix, right?”

“You were going out there to see Tony, the sales rep who has sold 10 times more TechShare programs than anybody else.”

“About 10 times more than our average reps, yes.”

“And you learned his secret?” Neil asked. “You know why he’s so much better at selling your loyalty program?”

“I think so,” Mike replied. “His secret is that he’s not any better at selling loyalty programs. What he’s better at selling is loyalty.” There’s your teaser, Neil, he thought. Now ask me what on earth I’m talking about.

Neil stared at Mike for a long moment. “Explain that to me.”

“That’s where I’d like to get your input,” Mike replied. “I wonder if we’ve been going at this backwards.” Note the ‘we,’ Neil, he thought. “We call TechShare a loyalty program, but what is it that we really want the program to accomplish?”

“Same as any loyalty program,” Neil said, impatiently. “What we wanted”(he stressed the past tense, with an unfriendly look at Mike) “was to give customers some technology that would lock them in so we’d get more of their business. TechShare was supposed to make us their supplier of first choice.”

“Here’s one thing that I learned,” Mike said. “If they give us most of their business because we package some attractive technology and offer them a good deal on our products, we’re still vulnerable to any competitor who devises a comparable package. Neil, how would you describe an ideal level of loyalty— something that goes beyond ‘supplier of first choice until somebody offers me the next choice?’”

‘How would you describe an ideal level of loyalty?’

Neil found the question intriguing. He thought about it. “Well, I guess the ideal would be that they’re so satisfied with us that they stop looking around for better deals. They stop shopping. ‘Satisfied’ wouldn’t even be the right word. Ideally, loyal customers wouldn’t just figure that buying from us is the path of least resistance or whatever. They would actively want to do business with us and with nobody else.”

‘They’re so satisfied with us that they stop looking around for better deals.’

“I agree,” Mike said. And I notice you’re starting to forget to remind me that I’m to blame for TechShare, he thought. “Satisfaction isn’t enough. In fact, I found some research showing that 75 percent of customers who leave a company for a competitor say that they were ‘satisfied’ or even ‘very satisfied’ with the company they left. Neil, you’ve been a customer for all kinds of companies. When you think of suppliers who pleased you so much that you stopped shopping—and I’ll bet there weren’t many of them—what was it that made you feel that way?”

‘When you think of suppliers who pleased you so much that you stopped shopping, what was it that made you feel that way?’

Neil considered the question for a full minute, remembering his experiences as a customer. “I can think of two,” he said, finally. “One was a business-to-business situation, the other was a gardening service I used when I lived in Maryland. But it wasn’t the companies, as such, that made me feel unusually loyal. In both cases it was an individual: one salesperson and one gardener.”

“What did the salesperson do, specifically, that made you stop shopping?”

“She didn’t act like a damned salesperson,” Neil said, laughing. “I wouldn’t say it in front of our reps, but it’s true.”

‘I trusted her. She actually seemed to care.’

Maybe that’s exactly what we should say to our reps, Mike thought. “How did she act?” he asked.

“I don’t know how to describe it,” Neil said. “I mean, she was a salesperson, pure and simple, but she acted more like a consultant or, I don’t know, a…”

“Business partner?” Mike suggested.

“Yeah, that was the feeling. I trusted her. She actually seemed to care about my operation, and she tried to help me improve it. She was a good listener and a good sounding board. I remember she once brought in one of her technical experts to help me think through a major project even though her company could only handle a small piece of it—and that was if I even gave them the business. I did give her the business, of course. I wish I could have given her the whole project.”

‘She acted like a consultant and an orchestrator. Beyond that, she built a strong personal relationship.’

“So she acted like a consultant and an orchestrator, coordinating resources and expertise on your behalf?” Mike asked. “And beyond that, she built a strong personal relationship with you, based on your trust that she wasn’t just there to sell you things but was committed to helping you improve your business and get better at doing the things you needed to do. Is that right?”

Neil sat back in his chair and regarded Mike, struck by a thought. “Holy smoke. I haven’t by any chance just described Tony in Phoenix, have I?”

“To a tee,” Mike said, looking Neil straight in the eyes. “You want to know what else I learned in Arizona, Neil? I learned that there’s nothing wrong with our loyalty program. But there was something wrong with the way I thought about it—the way we all thought about it. A loyalty program is just another product—or a bundle of services. Loyalty itself is something deeper, richer and much more valuable. Tony’s customers don’t become loyal to us because they buy TechShare. And they don’t buy TechShare from Tony because he knows some secret way to sell this particular program. People become loyal to other people, the way you became loyal to that saleswoman. The reason Tony’s clients buy TechShare is because they first buy Tony.”

‘People become loyal to other people.’

Neil nodded along, intensely interested. The atmosphere of the meeting had changed completely, Mike noticed. We’re teammates now, working to solve a problem. Whoever that saleswoman was, God bless her. Thanks to her, you know what I’m talking about, Neil.

“But wait a minute,” Neil said. “Isn’t that a basic part of the Action Selling ® system? The buyer’s first decision is whether to buy the salesperson. Shouldn’t our reps already know that?”

“They do, but they don’t,” Mike said. “I mean, yes, the answer is right there, but most reps don’t quite get it, any more than I did. They still think in terms of ‘selling’ and ‘satisfaction,’ assigning genuine loyalty to the realm of special programs that have to be sold. They don’t see what Tony saw intuitively: Carried to its logical conclusion, our selling system is also a communication system— and a blueprint for building loyalty. A loyalty program is just a convenient way for customers to act on the loyalty a salesperson first has to build. My mistake—our mistake—has been to think of TechShare as our major weapon in the battle for customer loyalty. Wrong. Our primary weapons in that battle are our individual salespeople.
Loyalty first, loyalty programs second.” And I’m talking too much, he thought. Ask a question.

‘Our selling system is a blueprint for building loyalty.’

“Let me ask you another question,” Mike said. “Suppose all of our sales reps got a lot better at building relationships like the one you had with that saleswoman—and like the ones Tony has with his clients. What do you think that would mean in terms of the loyalty we earn from our customers? What would it mean for our growth objectives if our whole sales force knew how to take their clients beyond the ‘satisfaction’ level and move them to the ‘stop shopping’ level?”

“Are you kidding?” Neil said, imagining not Tony, whom he had never seen in action, but a small army of reps like his favorite saleswoman. “That would be huge. So what are you suggesting? Do you want us to hire new people? Or create a major behavior change in the reps we’ve got?”

‘Tony is extremely loyal to our company.’

Not quite yet, Mike thought. “I’ll get to that,” he said. “Another thing that struck me about Tony is that he’s extremely loyal to our company. That really comes across when he talks to clients about us. What do you think about the connection between employee loyalty and the employee’s ability to create loyalty in customers?”

“I’m sure there’s a strong connection,” Neil answered. “If I don’t feel much loyalty to the company I work for, it would be awfully tough to convince you to feel any. And I think that my own sense of loyalty to my company would be hard to fake.”

“In your opinion Neil, what kinds of things can a company do to gain loyalty from its own employees?”

“That’s an awfully big question,” Neil said, mulling it over. “But I think that one key loyalty builder is for employees to feel as if they’re growing in their careers. The biggest reason employees leave a company is because they feel they are in dead-end jobs.”

“I agree,” Mike said. “That was a big issue for Tony. He told me how much he appreciated the training we gave him. How do you think that kind of investment pays off in terms of creating loyal employees, who in turn are more likely to create loyal customers?”

Neil laughed. “You want to do something to improve our reps’ ability to build better customer relationships, don’t you, Mike? Relax, partner, you’ve already convinced me you’re onto something big here. Maybe something enormous. What do you want to do? How would it work?”

Did you just call me ‘partner’? Mike thought. It’s time for Act 4. “First let me be sure we’re on the same page,” he said. “Since reps like Tony can sell TechShare very well, the lack of success is likely due to the way others approach selling it. Stronger personal relationships with a sales rep lead to more success in selling loyalty programs. Greater loyalty in our employees is a prerequisite to generating loyalty in our customers. Do you think that assessment is correct, Neil?”

“Yes. We’ve been over and over TechShare, and I’m convinced it’s at least as good as any other loyalty program in our industry. I know I’ve been rough on you, Mike, but I could never see where we screwed up in creating the actual program. That’s been part of my frustration.”

Mike was struck by the “we” in “We screwed up.” Now, that’s a buying signal, he thought. On to Acts 6 and 7.

“Here’s what I recommend,” Mike said. “I’d like another meeting, in two weeks, with you and the regional vice presidents. At that meeting, I want to propose additional training for all of our sales reps. My tentative title for it is ‘Masters in Action Selling ®.’ It will focus on how to sell loyalty—that is, how to sell loyalty first and TechShare second. Its theme will be that loyalty is always being gained or lost in the course of every single sales call, and that a salesperson’s overriding responsibility is always to sell loyalty. Everything we do needs to be connected to increasing loyalty. If we do that, TechShare will follow. I’ll be prepared to describe the training, its goals, and how it will work.”

Mike took a breath. Gaining your agreement for that proposal meeting is my Commitment Objective for this call, Neil. So here goes:

“How does that sound?” he asked.