Saturday, November 20, 2010

Customer Relationships

Have you ever struggled with the issue of professional contact with customers from a previous job?  If you have, you are not alone.  Over the past 16 years of my career, I have worked directly with a customer base or managed others who have a customer base.  I have witnessed employees voluntarily and involuntarily resign and then struggle with how to professionally stay in touch with their customer base.  This becomes a challenge if your prior employer views your interest of wanting to stay in touch with old clients as an attempt to solicit them to follow you to the new company, often a competitor, that you are working for.

The divided view on this topic can be generalized as such:
Company's Position: The customers belong to the company.  The reason an individual was able to have a successful business partnership with their customers was due to resources provided by the company and the delivery of any services or products was the result of the company - not an individual.  i.e. the company's brand in the market place has value and the company's business tools (brochures, business cards, website, etc...) aided in capturing the customer's business.  If the individual employee resigns - the company will replace them and service continues uninterrupted.
Employee's Position: The customers have a relationship with the individual employee and that is a result of personality, commitment, and ability to gain the customer's trust.  If the customer chooses to stay in touch or follow the employee to another business - that is the customer's choice.  Some employees feel it is appropriate to directly contact their customer's and inform them of where they will be going to work.

Often there are non-solicit agreements between employees and employers that spell out the "do's" and "dont's" of interacting with previous customers over a specific period of time (typically 12 months).

My recommendation is to be ethical and adhere to any contract you agreed to.  At all costs do not burn a bridge, even if you completely disagree with the former employer.  At the same time, I recognize business contacts (former customers) are a crucial component to success and starting over can be time consuming.  I recommend using a business social media tool to establish a neutral connection that gives you access to your contacts without having to solicit them.  For example;
I suggest choosing one.  I have accounts with all three and although there are differences, basically they are all the same.  I find I use LinkedIn the most.  In my opinion this is a neutral meeting point for people that want to network.  Although your relationship may have initiated through a previous employer, you have something new to offer an old customer.

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