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Honesty turned around a sour business partnership. Here’s how.

This insurance agent shares how to turn unsatisfied business partners into your biggest champions.

Honesty turned around a sour business partnership. Here’s how.
[Photo and illustration: mdworschak/iStock; wowwa/iStock]

The calls began in 2010, urging us to upgrade. They even threatened to stop service and support if we didn’t upgrade to the latest version of our agency management software. The sales rep from Vertafore was pressuring us, and we were getting annoyed. It’s not the experience you’d expect from a company we’d been doing business with for nearly 12 years.

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Irritation aside, we knew that switching to another provider would be an overwhelming chore. We were so heavily invested in the Vertafore platform. We feared changing would upend our entire business and take a tremendous amount of time that we didn’t have to spare. They had us over a barrel until a chance encounter changed our relationship completely.

“You know what? I hate it!”

It was the end of day two at the Big I independent agent national conference in Washington, D.C. After a long day, my husband and I hoped to relax with a drink. The bar was packed, and of course, the only place two approaching strangers could sit was a small table right next to ours.

They introduced themselves as employees of Vertafore. We told them we were customers, and they asked what we thought of their product. At first, I said, “We like it. We’ve been using it for years.”

Then I took another sip of my wine, turned back to them, and said, “Actually, you know what? I hate it!” I launched into all the reasons we felt disregarded, overlooked, and unsatisfied. I vented, hoping this would be an opportunity to reengage our relationship with a couple of midlevel sales reps. They asked a few probing questions, which I answered frankly and honestly.

They then revealed their true identities, the CEO and chief sales & marketing officer. Yikes. After some initial awkwardness, we spent the evening talking through all the challenges we’d faced. We also told them what they could do to improve our situation and help us realize the actual value of their product.

This chance encounter and the 180-degree turnaround in our relationship is a powerful lesson learned for any company when it comes to understanding—and satisfying—your business partners’ needs. No matter what your industry, your product, or the size of your company, tactical honesty can go a long way in turning critics and not-so-great business partners into your biggest champions.

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1. Ask questions and listen

The most important thing that Vertafore did while we shared our concerns was to ask questions and listen to us. They didn’t try to defend themselves or offer excuses, as tempting as that would have been for them. Instead, they genuinely wanted to learn more about the challenges we’d faced (and they certainly got an earful.) It probably wasn’t what they wanted to hear, but it was what we needed to mend our relationship.

Think about your conversations with customers. Are you truly listening? Or, are you immediately trying to think of a response without genuinely engaging with them? Listen closely first.

2. Engage management in customer success

Typically, customer interactions only take place between customers and their sales or customer service reps. Vertafore had previously been no different with a top-down management style that kept the C-suite disengaged from the customer. But that all changed when I met the C-suite leaders at the conference. Making the change and engaging executives in day-to-day customer success is critical not only for solving problems but also for devising strategy.

3. Treat customers like people, not accounts

One of the things that’s changed dramatically since that night at Big I is that now I have a relationship with the Vertafore team that goes beyond just paying my bill. They’ve cultivated an environment in which we feel welcome to share feedback, concerns, or ideas. The pressure is no longer one to upsell or upgrade. They are respectful of our agency’s size and resources but also value our time and input. In other words, they treat us like people, rather than just another account. This plays a massive role in retaining us as a customer.

4. Welcome feedback, even if it’s negative

We all want to shout from the rooftops about positive customer experiences. Some companies take great strides to hide unsavory feedback. They delete it from their social media pages and try to resolve issues without other customers finding out. But many forget negative feedback also provides an opportunity for you to shine and demonstrate your commitment to customer satisfaction. That’s why you should encourage your customers to help you find opportunities for improvement, reach out any time there’s an issue, stand up at your user conference, talk about their problems, or provide online feedback.

After all, customers have a vested interest in the relationship too. So next time you’re an unhappy customer, suggest solutions that will make positive change. Like any relationship, the vendor-customer one is a two-way street.

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The importance of listening and two-way communication

These same lessons apply to every day-to-day interaction with your customers or colleagues. Listening is an extremely underrated skill and lost art. Too often, we spend most of a conversation queuing up our response rather than paying attention to what the other person is saying. Like the Vertafore team did that night, stay open-minded, and don’t immediately become defensive if someone critiques your product or disagrees with you. Every disagreement doesn’t require a named winner or loser—sometimes, both parties can walk away having benefited from the interaction.

Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t have all the answers. Especially in a vendor-customer or manager-subordinate situation, it’s easy to feel pressured to have a solution or know the answer. But asking for more data, getting input from another source, or devising the solution together can be much more valuable. It’s okay to be human and to acknowledge vulnerabilities or weaknesses. We all have them. What sets apart those who are truly successful is their willingness to improve, adapt, and overcome challenges and deficiencies.


Danielle Marquis is an independent insurance agent at Higgins and Bolduc.

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