Are you pushing customers away?

Oct. 1, 2008

This article by commercial tire sales expert Jason Miller is the sixth installment in a multi-part series about how to land and keep commercial truck tire accounts. In the August 2008 edition of CTD, Miller discussed how to address customers’ concerns while separating their needs from their wants. In this installment, he discusses how to keep customers once you’ve won them over. Miller’s book, "Selling by the Numbers," is available from and other on-line booksellers. For more information about Miller and his company, TheTireConsultants, visit

Until now, this series has focused on getting new fleet customers. In a perfect world, once you sign them, they will stay with you “until death do you part.” But it doesn’t always work out that way. If you were to examine the many reasons for losing a customer, you would find that they tend to fall into one of four categories:

1. It was their fault.

2. It was someone else’s fault.

3. It was nobody’s fault.

4. It was your own fault.

Here’s a look at each reason, which will give you a better understanding of how to retain your current customers.


Number one: Their fault

Many years ago, I had the honor of supplying tires and retreads to Consolidated Freightways (CF) in seven states. CF was one of the largest trucking companies in the world and represented a great deal of business to my company. Each year I worked hard to raise the bar, making their tire program better than the year before. I built a network of relationships from the tire man to the corporate headquarters. It was not unusual to find me in one of their yards in the middle of the night, regardless of weather, with a light on my head, a pressure gauge in one hand and a tread depth gauge in the other. I paid careful attention to their concerns and made sure that everyone within my organization did what we promised to do. In other words, I was doing everything right. That was until Labor Day 2002, when for a number of reasons that had nothing to do with tires, they closed their doors forever.

Number two: Someone else’s fault

In an office or cubicle somewhere far, far away sits a person who may be plotting against you. They have no idea who you are and it’s unlikely you will ever meet this person face-to-face. In fact, you may never learn this person’s name or speak to him or her on the phone. He or she may be an administrative person discussing a competitor’s process, a comptroller considering replacing company trucks with leased vehicles, or even an executive deciding to close several satellite shops. These high-level discussions rarely hit the field; your friend at the local yard will be just as surprised as you are when he hears the news. You’re both unhappy and you’re powerless to do anything about it.

Number three: Nobody’s fault

The recent housing crash has had a devastating impact on a large number of formerly robust construction-related fleets. Flatbed trailers that once hauled construction materials now sit idle. Cement companies that specialized in residential construction are singing the blues. Don’t even get me started on the oil business -— if you’ve ever sold truck tires in Texas or Oklahoma, you know what I mean! When oil prices soar, it’s “All hands on deck, get me the tires right now. I don’t care what they cost.” When the price drops, they cap the wells, park the trucks and go fishing.

Depending upon the complexion of your business, many of these events will impact your sales, and you have no control over them.


Number four: Your fault

This may be the hardest section for you to read, but you must read it carefully. While it’s never easy to admit that you are the cause of your problems, it’s the only category you have any control over. Good customers rarely leave over a single event unless it’s severe. It usually happens gradually, even quietly. (It often happens so gradually, it goes unnoticed, even by veteran salespeople.) By the time your customers actually leave, they can be tough to win back. If you can read the signs and act before it’s too late, you can save almost any account. But you must be in tune with your customer or you’ll miss the clues. Subtle frowns, mild complaints and late responses to voice mails are all signs of potential problems.

Early in the customer-supplier relationship, both parties discuss their needs, capabilities and expectations in an attempt to see how they might be a good fit for each other.

Once common ground is identified, the relationship moves forward. During the early days, there is excitement, anticipation and apprehension. Suppliers work extra hard to make sure they don’t miss a beat. When small problems arise they are addressed quickly. This “honeymoon period” is exhausting but fades over time as the relationship becomes more comfortable and routine. Both the buyer and seller re-focus their efforts on pending issues that were previously de-emphasized.

Then a problem occurs; it may be a minor event, but it’s inconsistent with original expectations. Perhaps your customer called for emergency service and your service tech arrived at the call 45 minutes late. It wasn’t your proudest moment, but you and your customer agree that these things sometimes happen and you move on. But beware: even though the event came and went, a minor disconnection took place. Your customer will start watching more closely to see if it was an isolated event or part of a trend. If nothing else happens, the memory will fade. If additional problems arise, this event will be remembered as part of a whole.

Suppose the same customer called you a few days later to order a set of tires just as you were about to step into an important meeting. You didn’t bother writing his order down because you thought there was no way you could possibly forget. Unfortunately, your meeting was so intense that you forgot about the order until late at night while at home. You decided to handle it the first thing in the morning —- but now the tires are a day late. Again, it was an issue, not a crisis, but your customer disconnected a bit further. By now, he’s troubled by the trend.

Meanwhile, at your customer’s office, your competitor who previously couldn’t make it past the receptionist makes it to your friend, the buyer, just to say hello. The buyer tells your competitor that even though he’s happy with you as a supplier, he will listen. What may seem harmless is actually the start of a new relationship. Your customer is passively allowing for the possibility of change. Every error you now make will push your customer closer to your competitor. If you continue in failing to meet your customer’s expectations, your customer will actively seek a replacement.

It’s a strange characteristic of human behavior: we tend to remember just about anything that went wrong while overlooking those things that worked as expected. We also tend to fondly remember the people who went an extra mile to solve a problem.

Keeping customers is about setting expectations, then meeting or exceeding them.

Each time you exceed a customer’s expectation, you get a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. You’ll need one of those each time you have to beg for forgiveness for a goof-up.


It’s about time!

Since three of the four factors that lead to losing a customer are out of your control, you must plan for this attrition when developing a territory business plan.

How much business should you plan to replace? In my “Time Management for Commissioned Salespeople” seminar, I ask each participant to write down a number representing the amount of business they expect to lose each year due to reasons that are completely out of their control. At the end of the seminar, I ask them to go through their account list from the previous year and compare the actual business loss to their estimate.

The results can be shocking. On average, commercial tire dealers should plan on having to replace as much as 20% of their business annually if they hope to stay even!

How to do that while managing a thriving client list requires a new set of skills not previously taught in traditional time management seminars.

Success in the commercial tire business is all about relationships. Customers buy from you because they like you and want to do business with you.

In any relationship, you must set an expectation, then meet or exceed it. And that’s more easily said than done in the commercial tire sector.

If you think your company can do everything perfectly every time, think again. Each day something will go wrong; that’s OK because your customer doesn’t expect perfection. They expect you to know about the problem before they do and take immediate action to remedy the situation. They expect you to identify the cause of the problem and take steps to prevent it in the future. They expect you to care as much about their problem as they do.

In short, they want you to take care of their tire program as if it were your own. In fact, having a problem and fixing it can be more valuable than never having a problem; it gives you an opportunity to show how much you care.

In the December issue of CTD, Jason Miller will tell you how to manage your time for maximum effectiveness.

About the Author

Bob Ulrich

Bob Ulrich was named Modern Tire Dealer editor in August 2000 and retired in January 2020. He joined the magazine in 1985 as assistant editor, and had been responsible for gathering statistical information for MTD's "Facts Issue" since 1993. He won numerous awards for editorial and feature writing, including five gold medals from the International Automotive Media Association. Bob earned a B.A. in English literature from Ohio Northern University and has a law degree from the University of Akron.