At-Risk Customer Relationship Found During Continuous Improvement Exercise

Vendors that have individual customer relationships responsible for 5% to 50% of the company’s revenues often have several contacts at each account. Engaged communication at the senior levels is vital to long-term customer satisfaction and loyalty, but maintaining open communication at that level is not enough. Day-to-day contacts on the customer side often have quite a bit of power and certainly a considerable amount of influence. In this case study, a vendor’s day-to-day contact within a behemoth account was in a position to pick the vendors he used to make parts for his portfolio of products. He could also influence his peers within the company to switch to vendors he preferred. He was tempted to switch when he voiced a complaint to his day-to-day contact at the vendor and heard nothing back. The lapse was found during a routine customer feedback study that was part of the vendor’s continuous improvement program.

This is one in a series of case studies highlighting “Key Questions and Course-correcting Quotes” taken from 20 years of B2B customer insight projects. All names are fictitious, but the situations are real. Case studies paint a picture of how important it is to learn what your B2B customers think–but aren’t saying. These are real-world examples of how soliciting and acting on customer feedback has helped companies hold onto customers longer, grow relationships bigger and pick up new business faster.

Case study: A Hidden Landmine

Key Question (put to one of 20 contacts at a manufacturer’s biggest relationship): “Is there anything I can pass along to the president on your behalf?”

Course-correcting Quote:

Product Manager: “You tell them, if they expect me to pay this invoice for destroying the ‘overage,’ it’s the last invoice of theirs I’m going to process.”

My Client’s Quandary:

This was supposed to be a simple customer relationship assessment. The vendor was just checking to make sure there weren’t any hidden issues that could put key relationships at risk. Good thing they checked! The right parties were put in touch with each other, a disaster was averted, and the relationship grew as a result of how well the vendor ultimately handled the disagreement.


It was a fluke that this problem was caught. The product manager and I had been talking for 20 minutes at this point. He had offered quite a bit of “constructive feedback,” but nothing that required an immediate response. Maybe when he heard me offer to take his final thoughts to the president, he saw an opportunity to make sure the president knew of this ignored complaint. It turns out, he had balked to his account manager when he got the invoice, but the account manager hadn’t escalated the matter to his VP or the president. That means two problems were uncovered:

  • Urgent customer dissatisfaction over being billed for excess-product disposal.
  • A systemic problem of account managers not knowing when to escalate a complaint.

Feedback projects are a continuous-improvement tool used by company owners, presidents or GMs that can find counter-productive policies (charging major customers for the proper disposal of production overage) and gaps in employee training (not knowing when to escalate a problem).

I categorize projects as assessments, investigations, treasure hunts or rescue missions. This project was an assessment. The client’s question was “What do our customers think about the job we’re doing?” Vendors sometimes uncover “ticking time bombs” in a simple customer relationship assessment.

Ann Amati, Principal, Deliberate Strategies Consulting, helps companies use guidance from their current and past customers to grow future sales. She has a 20-year track record of using deep-dive interviews to create positive turning points in her clients’ relationships with their customers.

In her national practice, Ann has clients who sell millions to companies that make billions and sole practitioners/LLCs with more modest practices. She is the author of, “What Your Customers Aren’t Telling You That You Need to Know,” a collection of case studies, tips and tools for companies in commercial and industrial sales.

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