Unhappy customers are bad news. If you have happy customers, it's likely that your business will grow and be profitable. There's a sales maxim that one unhappy customer offsets 10 happy customers.

How do customers get unhappy? Mostly, they're unhappy because they don't get what they expect. Suppose you deliver wonderful work. Your work quality is 95 out of 100 — hard to do. But if your customers are expecting 100 out of 100, they'll be disappointed. If they are expecting 90 out of 100, they'll be pleased.

Your job, as a middle market executive, is to manage customer expectations. Of course, you should be concerned about expectations all the time. But there are several key places in customer relations where you have a good chance of creating disappointment if you're not paying attention or if someone working for you isn't paying attention. You should be thinking about your customers as partners, as teammates, and you should be anticipating problems to avoid letting them down.

Doing so is especially important for middle market companies. Small companies generally are directed by a single individual who keeps an eye on everything and makes sure the staff does things his or her way. Companies like these have few systems in place. Very large companies, by contrast, have many systems and protocols in place, and a lot of inertia. In addition, they're big enough and have been in business long enough to have built a brand.

Middle market companies typically haven't built a brand yet and are just beginning to build customer loyalty. In addition, they're frequently new in creating decentralized management and running activities like sales using rules and concepts rather than direct hands-on management. The following insights could make your growth smoother and more rapid.

1. When you're selling, control your sales people. You probably have both farmers and hunters. The farmers sell to existing customers. The hunters go track down and sell to new customers.

You probably don't have to worry about your farmers too much: The customers have seen your work. You have other staff working with them. Your farmer is with customers from time to time and works with your delivery people. He or she should have little reason to set expectations too high.

Your hunters, on the other hand, need to be watched. Their job is harder than farming. They get higher commissions, and they're more likely to be cowboys and cowgirls.

Some examples from my experience: A salesman was trying to sell our excellent software to a customer. The customer mentioned in passing one set of nice-to-have features and functions that weren't in the current product. The salesman immediately started talking about the plans we had for delivering this capability in the next release, six months away. The customer said, "Okay, we'll wait." The salesman should have talked up the current product, sold it, and told the customer that they'd be able to help test the new functionality, that they'd have first crack at the software, and that our developers would listen to their needs. Doing that would have been setting expectations properly.

Another hunter I knew promised that we'd give the prospect free training, free conversion of their data, and free installation. These items had little effect on his commission, but they did have a big effect on our profitability. We had to tell him (and the prospect) that he didn't have the authority to give away all of this revenue.

2. When staff changes, build relationships and leverage good will. Say you've worked with one of their people for a long time. She knows your staff, likes them, and likes your work. Then she's promoted and moves to another division. If you've been smart and anticipated this, your team will have built relationships with her colleagues. Second, use her good will to get to know her replacement. You've got a whole new sales job to do. And not only do you need to get the replacement up to speed, you need to set his expectations, as well.

3. When you're communicating, be smart. So many companies take formal communications for granted. Your opposite number on the customer side may have a good idea of what you're doing, but you can't skip formal communications. Some important rules about communication and expectations:

  • Avoid surprises — surprises are bad.
  • If you have bad news, don't wait to let your customer know. Help your opposite number get ready to tell his bosses the bad news in the best possible way. See what you can offer to help the situation.
  • Make sure that all communications are on time. If you're supposed to report weekly, make sure you do.
  • Make sure your opposite number knows the content of your communication before you send it.

4. When you're billing, be intentional in your communication. Here's where you really have to avoid surprises. And here's where almost every surprise translates directly into disappointment. Good communications can adjust customer expectations in advance, ensuring that the invoice isn't as much of a shock as it would be coming out of the blue.

When you look at all of the suggestions above, you'll see a common theme: Treat your customer like a valued partner. And don't fake it. Make sure that your staff members really understand that their job is to look out for your customer partner. If you think of a customer with scorn, make fun of them behind their backs, or take their needs lightly, you're going to wind up disappointing them and losing their business.

Peter Miller is an NCMM contributor and a career entrepreneur who has built sales forces in multiple companies. He is currently COO of Genomic Healthcare Strategies in Charlestown, MA.