To maintain profitable, long-term relationships, the best sales people make a habit of checking up on all their existing business relationships on a regular basis, to ensure that they are continuing to achieve their - and their prospect's - goals.

I suggest to my clients that they carry out these "relationship check-ups" about once every 4-6 weeks. Any sooner and you'll run the danger of crossing the line between persistence and stalking. Any later, and there's a good chance your customers will have forgotten about you.

Following up with customers is important at all times. It is even more so when you sense that there may be a problem brewing, such as when you feel someone isn't listening, when you aren't getting any real feedback or when you feel you simply aren't getting along with the other person.

Letting things go in the hope that "time will heal all things" is never a wise course of action. If time healed all wounds, we wouldn't need divorce lawyers, therapists - or to serve alcohol at high school reunions. If anything, time can make some wounds smart even more. So if you feel you may have a problem in the making with one of your customers, solve it now, before it can get beyond your ability to mend.

If you don't know how often to check-up with your customers - ask them! An effective trust building question is: "I want to ensure that I provide you with the best service possible. What does that look like to you?"

The following 3-step process can help you check up on your relationships with your customers, to make sure they stay as strong tomorrow as they are today. One more thing to remember: never conduct a customer check-up by email. While technology is wonderful, it lacks the personal touch of a phone call or, ideally, a face-to-face meeting, which you'll sorely need if there is any mending to do.

Step 1: Ask questions
First, start your check-up by asking any or all of the following questions:

  • I want to ensure that I offer you the best service possible. What does that look like to you?"
  • On a scale of one to ten, how well are we doing? What would it take to be a ten?
  • Do you feel that I listen to you - really listen, hear and understand you? If you really don't listen to the other person, admit it, and ask what could be done to improve things.

Note: Never respond to a customer's feedback with "Yes, but…" or "I know…." These phrases will discourage your customer from responding openly and honestly. It's extremely hard for people to give honest feedback, so no matter what they say, don't debate them, make excuses or try to justify why you acted the way you did. Just thank them for their candor, then after the meeting is over, consider what they had to say carefully and with as little ego as possible.

Try on their feedback like a shirt. If it fits, use it. If not, discard it. But before you discard anything, remember the old saying: "If three people call you a horse, you'd better start looking for a saddle." If you feel hurt or defensive, there is likely some truth to the comment. If it weren't true, it wouldn't be so upsetting.

Step 2: Make commitments
While you're still on the phone or in the meeting with your customer, immediately commit to an action that you can unilaterally take to improve the relationship based on the feedback they've given you. This will encourage them to take action as well, and things will almost certainly improve.

For example, if your customer feels you don't give them enough advance notice before dropping by, tell them that from now on, you will always email ahead to schedule a meeting rather than simply calling or stopping in unannounced and interrupting their day. Then, make sure to do it, without fail.

Step 3: Follow-up
Lastly, arrange a follow-up meeting to check how things are going as a result of the changes you've made in your relationship.

Gain mutual agreement about when the next meeting will be, to ensure you don't cross the line between persistence and stalking. Choose an appropriate method of following-up, such as a phone call or an invitation to lunch, dinner or coffee. Another effective approach is to send a brief email to your customer summarizing the meeting or phone call, and documenting the actions you have both committed to taking.

When following up, go back to Step 1, and repeat these steps as needed.

In my experience, the insights you can gain by conducting this simple check-up can be profound, and profoundly rewarding. As salespeople, we make decisions every day about how we will listen to a prospect. There are five "levels of listening" that we can adopt, each with its own highly predictable outcome:

  • Ignoring
  • Pretending
  • Selective
  • Active
  • Empathic

The top 20 percent of all salespeople practice active and empathic listening whenever they're in a sales meeting or talking with a client or prospect. In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey states: "Empathic listening gets inside another person's frame of reference. You look out through it. You see the world the way they see the world. You understand their paradigm. You understand how they feel."

When was that last time that you felt someone was really listening to you? How good did it make you feel?

The reality is, most of us don't feel that we are listened to very often. As a result, when we really are listened to, it makes us feel good. In fact, it makes us feel great.

Your job as a sales person is to make your customers feel better after the interaction with you than they did before. Listening to them, really listening, with the intent to understand them, is one of the best ways I know to make that goal a reality.

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Nonstop Sales Boom by Colleen Francis Make sure you check out Colleen's latest book, Nonstop Sales Boom for powerful strategies to drive consistent sales growth quarter after quarter, year after year.

Colleen Francis, Sales Expert, is Founder and President of Engage Selling Solutions ( Armed with skills developed from years of experience, Colleen helps clients realize immediate results, achieve lasting success and permanently raise their bottom line.

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