It was the company’s single largest customer, and with the contract coming up for rebid, the competition would be intense. With the value in the millions of dollars, this marquee customer would attract new competitors from Massachusetts and Connecticut. How would a small Rhode Island business defend its turf in the face of larger, more aggressive competitors who could afford to drop prices?
In recent columns for Providence Business News, I have talked about a new playbook for winning. Strategies and tactics for winning are often best illustrated with real-life examples; and no place better than right here in Rhode Island where small businesses are winning by applying innovative tactics and taking the actions required to win in more competitive markets.
The business, NETS Printer Solutions, located in Middletown, has been supplying printer cartridges and services to its clients throughout Rhode Island and Massachusetts for decades. While the owner, Davis Dewey, and his team had been steadily growing the customer base and providing a solid level of service to this specific major customer, the fact that the contract was nearing its termination date had him worried. With the economy softening and regional competitors looking further and wider for new business, Dewey was concerned.
“Retaining our major customer was simply a matter of survival at that time,” said Dewey. “Keeping all my employees and building our business was dependent on re-winning our single largest contract. While we knew we were doing a good job, and our customer was satisfied, I felt that would not be enough to win again. It was time to step up our game.”
The first step was to start early, build a team and begin preparing. Recognizing the need to defend his turf from a position of strength, the team began “benchmarking” its current service level. A key theme underlying the preparation activities was to involve everyone in the company, creating a sense of teamwork and refocusing worry into preparation for winning.
Strategy sessions and discussions with employees began to uncover areas of value and differentiation. Together the team developed a comprehensive win strategy and identified tactics for quantifying what their services meant for their major customer.
“Once we started looking deeper, we realized our service level and response time to emergencies was very valuable to our customer and a true differentiator,” Dewey said. “When we applied a dollar value to the up-time this higher level of service provided, we realized our investment in going the extra mile was a competitive advantage that we needed to use.”
As the company’s win strategy began to materialize, the employees’ involvement and confidence began to build. From identifying ways the company improved the efficiency of handling repairs and on-site visits to quantifying the company’s efforts to recycle and improve stocking, everyone played a role. With everyone busy at preparing to win, there was no time to worry about losing. What had been an unspoken concern was now a daily source of unifying pride and energy.
“Everyone talks about their employees being a source of strength, but in our case the collective energy was contagious. I also realized how much our team truly cared about our customer and what a source of pride that was for all of us,” he said. “We transformed from a company hoping we could keep our major customer to a team excited for the chance to re-earn our customer’s loyalty.”
As the proposal began to take shape, the focus sharpened on finding creative ways to illustrate the business value of better service. Faster response time to get equipment working, proactive service routines and other services were all areas that translated into quantifiable business value. Creative graphics, charts that summarized the lifecycle value of service improvements and other tactics began to transform a simple business proposal about products and services into a highly customized story about how the company was in the best position to help its customer achieve its business objectives.
What Dewey and his team began to realize was that the trusted sports motto – the best defense is a good offense – was relevant here. Instead of defending the business, the focus turned to proving the case based on quantifiable metrics the customer could use in making a business decision. Being liked was nice, and having a solid service history was good. But this team understood winning major contracts means proving your value in a way that is compelling and powerful.
“One of the real lessons was turning things inside-out and looking through the eyes of our customer. Why should they choose us even if a competitor appeared to offer lower prices,” Dewey said. “We wanted to do more than just claim it, we wanted to show it and prove it. And we did.”
As the final selection decision was made, NETS found its competitors would not give up easily. What had been a strategy to win became a valuable proof source in justifying the business case rationale for staying with the company. While the losing companyies thought it was about old relationships, the fact was it was about the company that took nothing for granted and proved it was the best choice; again.
“Winning this contract again was monumental for our company,” said Dewey. “We were able to keep all our jobs and even move into a large building, helping our local economy. I learned that winning against tough odds takes innovation, commitment and leadership. We are stronger, but also smarter about how to win in tough times.” •
Christopher B. Coyle is managing director of business development services with CBC Group LLC in South Kingstown.