One of the most daunting tasks for any salesperson is trying to repair a relationship with a customer when one of your predecessors did something that totally turned the customer off on your company. Anyone who has ever been in sales has heard a customer say something like, “You have some nerve coming in my office after what your company did to me back in 1999." During my career I never cease to be amazed about how long some customers hold a grudge over something (real or imagined) done to them by someone else from your company. Overcoming a grudge that has been held for a long time is extremely challenging but not impossible. I've overcome many past grudges by doing some or all of the below things:

  • Referral.If you have a happy customer that knows the grudge holder very well, ask that customer to call on your behalf and vouch for you. If you can get a customer that is a friend of the person you are trying to sell to after a past mishap, a referral, or better yet several, can get you back in the door.

  • A credit good on the first order. I have given a former customer a $500 credit good on their first order as an apology for past missteps and as a peace offering. This has worked for me more often than not. One time a former customer used the credit on a $5,500 order, the first sale we made to him in more than 20 years. That was the best $500 I ever spent. I got a nice order, and better yet, resumed selling to a customer others in our company had given up on. That customer ended up buying more than $80,000 from us during the next 12 months.

  • A sincere apology.If you are able to get in front of the aggrieved party, a sincere apology can also work. I have said things like, “Mr. Jones, I understand that my predecessor made some serious mistakes in handling your account and beyond apologizing on behalf of my company, all I can say is that if you give me a chance you will see that I am different.” I then make a point of handing the customer my business card and I point out that my office, home, and mobile numbers are all on the card and that he or she can call me 24/7 with any problems in the future. It’s amazing how far a sincere, heartfelt apology will get you.

  • Ask for a small order to prove your worth.I have asked customers that haven’t bought from us in years to give me even a small order just to test me as to how I service my accounts. I had one customer give me a $150 order after months of begging for an order. I ensured that he received his shipment without any hitches, and exactly when I said he would. He was so impressed with the amount of care I exhibited on a small order that his next order was $7,000. We are still selling to that customer six years later.

  • Persistence.When all else fails, be persistent. Persistence doesn’t work with all types of customers but I have found that, generally speaking, the type of customer that I want to sell to is a fair person and is impressed with persistence. If you refuse to take no for an answer (without being a pest) you can wear down even the most bitter former customer.

These are some of things that have worked for me over the years. If something else has worked for you, I would love to hear about it.
Jim Sobeck is president of New South Construction Supply, West Columbia, S.C., and author of the Biz 101 blog at Contact him at