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Does sales really "own" the customer relationship?

I hear this all the time: "Sales owns the customer relationship." Not true, folks. If it is true at your company, you've got a problem.

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I'm not dumping on sales here, or saying that "just anyone" can call the customer at any time for any reason. But to say that sales has total control over the customer relationship, even to the point of excluding others from important contacts (such as product research), is a mistake.

The problem is that we confuse and merge the concept of "delegated control" and "ownership". The company in fact "owns" the customer relationship, but delegates most of the account control to sales because the company holds sales accountable for the revenue out of the account.

But just because we delegate most of the account control doesn't mean that sales owns the relationship.

The company owns the customer relationship, and uses that relationship to meet many company goals. These include revenue, but also include:

  • marketing goals such as success stories and public relations
  • customer service goals such as customer success and satisfaction
  • innovation and product management goals such as understanding customer needs and unsolved problems

If you are a product leader, but you can't access the customer (especially lost deals!), your company likely has a mistaken idea of who really "owns" the customer relationship.

What to do if this is the case at your company? There are ways that you can get access to accounts that sales has abandonned. Use those to show some value in the kind of customer work that you need to do. I wrote about that here:

What to do if you're not allowed to call customers

Unfortunately this is the kind of problem that must eventually be settled by the leaders of the sales and marketing functions, and if not by them, then by the CEO. Until that is ironed out, it's going to be hard for you to play a strategic role. But check out the article linked above for some covert ideas.

Last point: Make this a question you ask in every future interview: "What are the rules around here for contacting customers for input?" The answer to that one question will tell you a lot about the potential for you at that company.

Best of luck,
Alan

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