Tom's best customer, Meg, called and asked for a favor: "Can you talk to my new assistant Karen about getting up to speed with your software? She's got a couple of questions I don't have time to answer."
Theoretically, supporting a brand-new user was supposed to come under the heading of training, and it was supposed to be handled under a separate contract involving the district manager and the training department ... assuming the customer's request required "extensive interactions" with the new user. But Meg had been a loyal customer for years, and the issue of whether the sales team could provide brief initial phone support on the most basic questions had been settled long ago. Tom's manager was fine with this kind of thing.
Tom instantly said, "No problem, Meg. What's her number?"
But he shouldn't have.
Too many salespeople are willing to perform free services for their customers without any discussion whatsoever. It's as though by performing these extra services the salesperson hopes the customer will give him some consideration in return. Not a bad idea ... if the customer knows how to read minds. Unfortunately, most don't.
Selling is one of the few professions where a substantial portion of the preliminary work is performed up front, without charge. Think about it. You don't walk up to the ticket booth at the cinema and say, "Here's the plan - I'm going in to watch the film, and if I like it, I'll stay to the end and pay you on the way out." And when you get into a cab, you don't say to the driver, "Take me to Fourth and Main and I'll tell you when you can turn on the meter."
Yet as salespeople, we often let our customers have basically the same conversation with us. This is a big mistake. Our meter should always be running!
No one is saying you should refuse to perform these services for your customers, or even for an important prospect. But it's essential to find a tactful way to help the other person get a clear sense of the effort you are putting forth on their behalf.
Suppose the conversation in question had gone like this:
Meg: Can you talk to my new assistant Karen about getting up to speed with your software? She's got a couple of questions I don't have time to answer.
Tom: Meg, I'd like to help you, but there may be a problem. I am slammed with meetings and follow-up calls. Let me ask you this - how badly do you need this? (Tom's intention, of course, is to make the call.)
Meg: Well, we really were hoping to get her up and running as soon as possible.
Tom: OK. Is she available this morning?
Meg: Yes, she'll be here all morning.
Tom: Tell you what. Can I ask you to text me her number, and then let me text you back in a few minutes? I need to see if I can reschedule something that I had lined up today. I may be able to call her in a few minutes.
Meg: Sure. Thanks, Tom. (She texts Karen's number.)
Tom (texting): Good news, I can call her in 10 minutes.
Meg (texting): Thanks, I appreciate your help.
Tom(texting): No problem, Meg. We appreciate your business.
See the difference? By telling the customer that he had to make some calls and rearrange some activities in order to be able to accommodate the request, Tom essentially created an IOU. Meg knows she owes him one!
You can and should create an IOU for services you provide that are normally rendered at no cost. The fact that there is no money paid for these activities does not mean that they do not have value. Making sure the other person perceives that value is an important part of your job as a professional salesperson. And getting an IOU can make it tougher for the competition to gain a foothold with a prospect ... or even tilt a customer's future decision in your direction.