Why do so many salespeople forget the names of their customers?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.

My friend Susan Wentworth, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin, sent me this in an email:

I do think entrepreneurs are a special kind of crazy for sure. I guess you need a little crazy to do something no one has suceeded at doing before. The risk of failure is so big, you’d have to be a little crazy.

I am often surprised at another aspect of entrepreneurs and also salespeople that I have have noticed a few times. They ACT like they are real personable, yet often forget that they have met you before or even had a meeting with you. I noticed this with the guy who runs the Learning Tomorrow For Happy Children Festival. He had two meetings with our catering manager to discuss a big order for the festival… yet the next time he came in he didn’t remember her – introduced himself like they had never met.

Another example, from just the other day. There is a little juice company here in town started by a graduate from the Chicago Booth school. He gets fruit from the Costa Rica (where he is from) and makes tropical juice blends. We used to carry his juice and then he left town for a while and we haven’t ordered for maybe a year. Two weeks ago he came in. Talked to the retail manager and I and said he was back in town and distributing again, would we like to order? Sure, we said, we’ll be in touch. I ordered this past week and he brought it in. Then he asked me, what brought us back? Did we see the brand on digital media? Why did we order again? He didn’t remember that we had talked, that he was the one who approached us about bringing his product back.

I find that interesting because I see that as being an important skill in being a salesperson or entrepreneur – remembering people, their names, their faces. Isn’t that what makes a great salesperson – someone who connects on a personable level, can recall your preferences and at least remember your name?

I love these stories. It’s good to be reminded how many people learn these superficial techniques, while forgetting the things that actually help build relationships with people. Especially in the USA, where the universities put such a high priority on being extroverted and involved with a lot of extra-curricular activities, I think many ambitious people are mislead about what’s really important. They become good at simulating the outer form of being personable, while forgetting the meaningful context.

There is the old saying, good salespeople don’t sell to customers, they make friends, and then they sell to their friends. Which is difficult to do, if you can’t recall what your friend’s name is.

Obviously, it is difficult to remember the details about hundreds of people, which is why good salespeople usually write down a lot of notes about their encounters with specific customers.

In large firms, the relationship with the customer is supposed to belong to the company, not to the individual salesperson, so the Vice-President who oversees the sales team is typically in a constant fight with their salespeople, trying to get the individual salespeople to record all possible information about their interactions with a customer. This is why software such as Salesforce was invented. If the Vice-President of Sales can get their salespeople to record information such as “The buyer is named Li Kwan, she is 37 years old, her birthday is on December 12th, she has 2 children, their names are Sian Kwan and Hu Kwan, they are 7 and 9 years old, their birthdays are April 4th and August 15th” then even if the salesperson is fired, a new salesperson can be appointed, who will start off knowing all these facts about the buyer at whatever company is the customer. And that too seems a bit fake — it is a bit fake that someone you’ve never met before knows so much about you and your kids and maybe your husband, but it is better than starting over and not knowing anything about the customer.

But in sales, as in so many other fields, few practitioners seem to follow even the obvious practices which they should.

And please note, you don’t need software to keep track of who your customers are. Before there was software, good salespeople used to keep track of their customers by writing notes on paper — and that is a perfectly good way to do things, and it is amazing that so many salespeople today can not be bothered with even that!