Who Owns the Customer, i.e. the Company or the Sales Agent?

This question was less important when the job market was in decline.  But as the economy recovers, business owners and senior managers will be faced with this question, more and more.

Depending on who you ask, there are two popular, but contradicting opinions.  If you ask the owner/CEO of the entity – “The customer belongs to the company.  They come to us because of our quality products/services.  The Sales Agent has been properly compensated for procuring the customer on our behalf.”

However, If you ask the Sales Agent – “The customer belongs to me.  They were sourced by my efforts and we have a relationship.  They transact business with the entity because of me.”

In fact, it is not uncommon for a Sales Agent to maintain a separate and personal file of their interaction with the client/customer.  When they leave your entity and seek employment from your competitor, they may say, “I produced $XXX in revenues for my last company, and I can do the same for you.  I maintain a book of business that will more than likely follow me, if I move to your company.”

There is a legal answer to this question, which I was reminded of, when I left an entity after fourteen years, even though not in a Sales capacity.  Not more than 30 days after my departure from one entity to a competitor, I received a letter from the President of my former employer.  Excerpts of the note are as follows -“In view of your departure from XYZ, this letter is to remind you of your obligations to XYZ, and under the law, both during and after your employment with XYZ…it is your obligation to handle XYZ trade secrets, confidential or proprietary information to which you had access during your employment at XYZ, whether in your memory or in writing, or in any other form, with the strictest confidence and in a manner consistent with XYZ’s policy, both during and subsequent to your employment…you may not misappropriate or use for the benefit of anyone other than XYZ any confidential or proprietary information relating to XYZ’s business.”

So what can you do?

As a first step, make sure your compensation agreements and employee agreements include language that clearly states the client belongs to the company and the legal obligation of the employee.  This agreement should be reviewed and approved by a qualified Labor Attorney.

But even after this measure, you may find that the client leaves you and follows the Sales Agent.  This situation may occur not because of what the Sales Agent did, but more because of what you did not do.  The companies that lock in the client and foster brand loyalty have developed a communication link with the client.  If you do not reach out and establish this link to your brand, the only connection the client has to the company is the Sales Agent.  More than likely, if the Sales Agent leaves, so will the client.

Popular approaches companies use to reach out to the client and maintain contact include offering post purchase support or discounts on future purchases or advertising related products/services.

At every possible opportunity your entity should advertise the brand and state the value proposition.   Regardless of the product/service, every business runs the risk that what they offer becomes a commodity in clients’ minds, i.e. belief that every competitor offers identical product/service.  If all products/services are the same, why not just work with the individual Sales Agent, wherever they go?

But your value proposition is your differentiator.  Customers/clients will seek you out and be less sensitive to price if they understand the benefit of working with you vs. other vendors.  How do you differentiate yourself from the pack?

It is a valuable exercise to identify and document what makes you different.  The results of this activity should become the basis of all marketing materials, i.e. your value proposition.

An example of a value proposition that I have used includes the following commitments.  XYZ Entity –

  • Offers superior product or service;
  • Makes an effort to understand your specific needs and has many ways of doing things so you can find the one that meets your needs;
  • Takes responsibility to get things done;
  • Is knowledgeable about the product/service you seek;
  • Tells you what you need to know in the way you understand;
  • Offers a complete array of the product/service you seek, to make your life easier.

The only way to maintain a client is to develop a relationship between the client and the company, through consistent messaging that differentiates yourself from the pack of competitors.

Author: Regis Quirin
Visit Regis's Website - Email Regis
Regis Quirin is a financial executive with 23 years of corporate experience, i.e. New York Stock Exchange, JP Morgan Chase, and GMAC ResCap; and 15 years working with small and medium-sized entities, i.e. joint ventures, start-up entities, established businesses. In 2014, Regis published "Redesign to Turnaround Underperforming Small and Medium-Sized Businesses" available via Amazon.