Ron Bucher, Director Worldwide Customer Support, AccuVein has been managing customer support for over 30 years in a wide variety of hi-tech companies in organisations both with and without field service and as such has an extensive and broad experience – so his forthcoming presentation at Field Service USA speaking on the challenge of separating product sales and post sales service is a session set to be full of deep insight.
Looking ahead of the conference Kris Oldland spoke with him about the challenges he will be addressing…
“What I have observed over the years is that for a lot of companies in any high-tech sector there is a certain amount of post sales account management required as all products have problems.” Bucher begins as we discuss why he has chosen to focus on the importance of ensuring product sales representatives don’t get absorbed into the post sales support process.
“In many companies the product sales representatives can get very consumed in managing post sales product issues and I believe almost all companies hire sales people to sell product and not to act as customer support managers.”
“So there is a hidden cost to every sales organisation if the service organisation is not managing all of those post-sales product support issues,” he explains.
Of course this issue, which is indeed a prevalent one, not only impacts the sales division’s efficiency but also can somewhat counter-intuitively negatively impact on the service department as well.
“Sales people tend not to be that experienced or effective in managing post-sales product support issues in a way that is optimal for the company – if they don’t understand the service process or the product, they can actually make the situation worse when they are involved in this process,” Bucher continues.
“The theme here really is if you can improve your customer support organisation so that sales people don’t have to get involved in post-sales product support issues it is a win-win for the sales organisation, the service organisation and the company.”
One school of thought is that extended warranties and service contracts should be sold at that point of sale with the product as a solution, so once that is all in place it is easier for the post-sales customer service teams and the account management teams to make sure that everything does run smoothly for the customer. This is an approach that Bucher firmly supports.
The best contribution any product sales rep can make to ensuring their customers are happy and ensuring their customers get the best post-sales support is to sell them a service agreement up front with the product...
“Customers who have service support agreements are happier customers,” he adds.
“The reason is that when they do have problems it’s much less hassle for them. If a product is out of warranty, virtually all product companies will charge very high prices to fix an out of warranty product and the service level will be akin to ‘we will get to it when we can.’”
“It’s a world of difference to a customer, if they have that service agreement or if they don’t. Customers don’t expect any product to be perfect, they expect every product to fail at some time. What they really get disappointed at is how the problem is handled once the product has failed.”
“It is very easy for a customer up front to say ‘oh I don’t need a service agreement we’ll take our chances’ but that is the customer shooting themselves in the foot. A really good sales rep will explain to their customer what their experience will look like after the warranty expires if they don’t buy a service agreement and what their experience will be if they do buy a service agreement.”
“Customers buy a service agreement to eliminate and prevent pain. It is not just an insurance policy – it is a higher level of service that you will get,” he concludes.
However, perhaps one significant barrier to adopting an approach that marries product and service sales is ingrained in the mind sets of many product sales reps.
Whilst, as Bucher explains customers do expect a device to fail, could it be that in building up the value of their product many product sales people just don’t want to admit that this is the case?
In focussing on talking up the reliability of a device as a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) or differentiator against the competition, do some product sales reps lead themselves up a blind alley from which they can’t back down at the last minute and say … but when it does actually break we have a service package… is a reluctance by product sales reps to acknowledge that the device they are selling can fail part of the problem?
“They don’t want the customer thinking anything negative about the product while they are waiting for the customer to send them a PO for a purchase,” Bucher agrees.
The most successful model that I’ve personally had experience with is where the product sales and service sales are owned by separate teams
However, an alternative approach is for product and service should be sold by separate teams, which Bucher sees as the optimum approach.
“Selling service is very different to selling product, as one of my colleagues used to say selling service is like selling the invisible,” he begins.
“The most successful model that I’ve personally had experience with is where the product sales and service sales are owned by separate teams. We hired an experienced commission sales rep, who was dedicated to telesales for service sales only and he worked with the individual territory reps who sold the product and that was by far the most successful model I’ve ever seen.”
“You do need someone selling service that a) enjoys commission sales and b) really does understand the service proposition and 80 to 90% of product sales people don’t really have the time to understand the value proposition of a service agreement and if you don’t understand it you can’t sell it.”
Although, whilst organisations can take steps to separate the sales and support functions, it is another challenge to get customers to follow suit.
One of the challenges which leads to sales reps being dragged into the support process, is that a good sales rep will take pride in building his relationships and won’t want post-sales product issues to put those relationships at risk. This can often result with the sales rep being positioned as the go to guy for the customer.
But if the service support structure isn’t strong enough that can lead to the sales rep having their focus directed in an unproductive place.
“You can’t blame the sales rep for getting involved if the service organisation is not strong enough to solve these problems on their own,” Bucher comments.
“I walked into a situation like at that at one point in my career where the top sales guy was spending 80% of his time managing post-sales product issues when I came in.”
The key take-away here is that your company could sell a lot more product if the sales reps are not involved in post sales service issues.
“Sales people really don’t want to manage post-sales issues but if they feel like that are forced to they’ll do it because they have relationships with these customers, sometimes long lasting personal relationships and they’re going to do what they’ve got to do to make sure the customer is happy, so this is a two way street between service and sales.”
“My message to service managers is ‘if you think sales people aren’t very good at managing post sales product issues and sometimes make things worse, it is incumbent on you to make your service organisation strong enough so they don’t have to get involved.”
“The key take-away here is that your company could sell a lot more product if the sales reps are not involved in post sales service issues. And that’s a take-away not just for service managers but also for CEOs. Sadly, a lot of CEOs are spending sales resources on post-sales product support when they don’t even know it,” Bucher asserts.
However, whilst the issue is a considerable challenge, it can be overcome insists Bucher.
“It really is possible to run your customer support organisation in a manner where the customer would rather come to your group rather than the product sales guy - it takes a lot of work, first of all you’ve got to recognise the value of doing it,” he explains.
“You can’t just hire technicians. You’ve got to hire people who are not only good at fixing the product but are even better at fixing the customers. You’ve got to have people who have exceptional communication skills, they have to have exceptional personal relationship skills and they’ve got to be able to talk with vice presidents as well as they can technicians.”
“If you can hire those kind of people then you will be hiring people that will be doing the post-sales account management that consumes so many sales people.”
And while it sounds like a tough ask, Bucher clearly stresses that it is still possible.
“I run into customer support leaders who say you can’t find people who have all that. I’ve done it, in fact I’ve done that my whole career, I even lived that as a field service technician myself.”
“Tell me it’s difficult, I’ll agree with you, tell me it’s really difficult, I’ll agree with you, but tell me it’s impossible? I’ll show you it's not.”