November 29, 2023

A company in technical sales is often led by someone who knows the product but doesn’t enjoy being the public face of the company. Staying inside one’s reclusive comfort zone can cause a leader to miss out on cues that frustrated customers are ready to switch from no-bid renewals to a competitive bid process. In this case study, a sole-source supplier didn’t have the perspective to deduce the scope and nature of the problems that were putting their most important relationship at risk.

This is one in a series of case studies highlighting “Key Questions and Course-correcting Quotes” taken from 20 years of B2B customer insight projects. All names are fictitious, but the situations are real. Case studies paint a picture of how important it is to learn what your B2B customers think–but aren’t saying. These are real-world examples of how soliciting and acting on customer feedback has helped companies hold onto customers longer, grow relationships bigger and pick up new business faster.

Case Study: Relationship in Peril

Key Question (asked of a COO at a multi-million-dollar account): “You don’t have a day-to-day relationship with ‘PartsCo,’ so it’s difficult for them to be certain they know what your expectations are. What should they understand about what you personally expect of them now, and how might that be different from what you expected of them earlier in the relationship?”

Course-correcting Quote:

COO: “It’s hard to negotiate with them. We don’t want to be gouged, and in some instances we feel gouged. By comparison, our other key suppliers are more flexible. We’ve also had concerns about their quality control and willingness to replace defective parts. I wasn’t here when the relationship was new. I’ve met with their #2 guy, but I’ve only seen their top executive at industry conferences. He needs to show me between contract negotiations that he considers our business important. I want to continue to renew them, and recent improvements in quality control are helping, but they need to acknowledge that we have choices.”

The Client’s Quandary:

This large, multi-year relationship had started off quite successfully but slowly deteriorated over time. PartsCo felt helpless as their top partnership seemed to be slipping away. They were desperate to understand what they were doing wrong and how they could get things back on track.


The real problem was most of the communication over the past several years had been at the front-line level except during contract negotiations. Much had changed at the customer’s upper levels over time, and PartsCo kept itself out of the loop. PartsCo’s leadership needed to initiate peer-to-peer communication periodically from the top down and to stay engaged. Their top executive had a technical background. He needed coaching on how to structure a relationship-tending conversation. Once he understood the fundamental nature of the problem, he and his team quickly began listening more carefully and working more collaboratively with this customer (and others). The relationship is now back on track

I categorize projects as assessments, investigations, treasure hunts or rescue missions. This project was a “rescue mission.” The challenge was, “Can this marriage be saved?”