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Is Customer Still King (or Queen) in Your Business?

06-Feb-2009

The fundamental characteristics all customers share

There is something truly magical about that precise moment when a product is bought or sold. I suppose it's because our species has relied upon this most fundamental form of capitalism for so long.

As humans became more efficient in drawing sustenance and were no longer engaged 100% in the act of survival, we learned to plant a little more rice or catch a few more fish. This abundance was then taken to the "marketplace" where people traded it for something they didn't have but nonetheless needed. I'm no evolutionary biologist, but I'd be willing to bet the act of buying and selling activates some ancient and primitive part of the human brain.

The act of selling, of course, requires a customer, and for years sales professionals have been taught that Customer is King. They learn about the product they are selling, learn how to counter objections from their customer, learn how to educate their customer, and learn how to generate new leads. When each person was responsible for selling their own extra crops, it was clear who the customer was.

As business grew, though, entire functions came into being that had nothing whatsoever to do with product, or customers, or selling.

It certainly makes sense. After all, there is no point in having every person in the company learn all the thousands of regulations associated with the accounting function. It's a trade-off, though, as a smaller and smaller proportion of employees gets to participate in that most sacred act of selling products to a customer.

The company where I work makes products associated with eye care, and many of our products are sold to eye-care professionals. Recently, the recruiter who hires our sales professionals and I joined one of our territory managers for a day in the field. I'm not about to suggest that we contributed in any way to the sales that were booked that day; I'm sure our presence was more of a nuisance than help.

However, my "day in the field" was an awesome experience. I prepared by reviewing the training materials and learned a lot about our products. For the first time, I opened packages of the different products and held them in my hands. I was also able to meet the medical professionals who used these products to help patients.

No matter what business you're in, you have a customer. I hope as a recruiting professional you don't wait as long as I did to watch your product get into a customer's hands. I know my colleague who recruits sales reps now uses her experience in the field to answer questions for potential hires. My major take-away was that, regardless of your business, there are a few fundamental characteristics all customers share.

Customers, Like People, Are Unique
The day we visited customers, we stopped at six different locations. Every single person with whom we spoke was totally different from the others. One was all business and wanted only the facts. Another was very friendly and spent most of her time asking about us. Still another was shy at first, and then became more comfortable as the conversation progressed. Anyone who makes the mistake of assuming every customer will respond to a single prescribed sales approach will realize quickly how wrong they are.

My friend Reid Buckley loves to tell the true story of an acquaintance who is generally regarded as one of the most successful salesmen in his field.

Looking back, though, his most vivid memory is that of a customer very early in his career who treated him brutally. He had invited the young salesman into his office, and then promptly ignored him for hours at a time. The lesson he had to eventually learn was how to sell to that customer "the way he wanted to buy." He did, and paradoxically the lessons he learned from sitting for hours in front of someone who ignored and humiliated him ended up serving him very well.

Everyone will eventually encounter a customer like that. I watch many recruiters get frustrated with these "tough nuts" because they want them to respond to the sales pitch they're most comfortable with. It's important to be flexible in your approach, and learn to sell the way the customer wants to buy.

Your Competitors Are Always Around
When we're immersed in the culture of a company, we're surrounded by its symbols and imagery. Our company homepages have large logos, as do our stationery, brochures, and signs on our buildings. The first thing that struck me when I walked into the first doctor's office was our lovely product display.

More specifically, I was struck by the way it was located right next to a competitor's display case. And under another company's calendar. Just beside still another company's mouse pad.

It was jarring to see the look and feel of our company brand piled up so incongruously with other branded materials. It struck me that, when I go to work, I see only things that remind me of my own company. When my customers go to work, they see things that remind them of all my competitors. It's important to keep that in mind and truly differentiate your product from all the others.

Unglamorous Things to Make the Sale
When we visited a doctor's office, I helped straighten up the store room. I removed old product, put new product in the little drawers, and even made sure all the packages were facing the same way in the drawers. If you spend time with people who are passionate about what they do, you've already seen this level of dedication.

As I think back on specific leaders I've met who deliver strong business results, inspire their teams, and regularly deliver innovation to their businesses, they've all impressed me by their willingness to do whatever it takes to delight the customer. I remember when one of my favourite leaders agreed to attend a recruiting event I was coordinating several years' back.

I expected that someone so successful and powerful would probably want to hole up in his hotel room and make phone calls or answer emails. Instead, he helped assemble welcome packages, directed people around the property, and delivered an impromptu talk to a roomful of students.

A cynic might think he did those things to show us he was a "regular guy," or to demonstrate the traits he wanted to see from his subordinates. I myself was cynical, so I asked him why he chose to spend his time with us as he did. I remember his look of surprise.

He didn't realize he had "sent a message" at all! Instead, he knew that attracting talent was a critical activity for the business because it directly impacted our ability to get product to customers. While much of his "attracting talent" activities did include approving multi-million dollar consulting agreements and overseeing talent reviews, he knew that the little activities were equally important.

Go to Your Customers
I forgot to look at the mileage gauge when we first got into the car, but we drove around a lot during our visits. In some cases, we went to one location, drove across town to another, then returned to another office just down the street from the first office. The reason is that, despite our best intentions, sometimes the customer's schedule just couldn't accommodate an ideal route and schedule.

I'm often struck by vendors who cold-call me and leave a voicemail informing me that they'll be in my town on a certain day and will be stopping by at 9:45 a.m. to meet me to talk about a solution they've developed to "fix" my problems. One vendor caught me on the phone recently and told me that "based on her research, her company's product would be a great solution for my recruiting challenges."

I responded by asking her what data she gathered, how she gathered it, exactly what conclusions she drew, what my company does, who my competitors are, where my company is located, how many people are employed by my company, what sources I use to fill my jobs, and what about her product made it an ideal solution for me specifically.

Taking time to understand your customers' needs is critical when our job is helping them identify talent with whom they must work and rely upon. Sometimes it's not convenient, but it's important to make that connection.

Maintain Your Enthusiasm
During our "day on the road" we met one customer for 15 minutes, one for five minutes, one for a quick drive-by hello, and we caught only a glimpse of another (though we waited 45 minutes to see him).

I was amazed by our host's ability to deliver the same level of enthusiasm to our 4:30 p.m. visit as she did to our 8:30 a.m. visit. I think the reason she did it so well is that I didn't get the sense that she was "psyching herself up" in the car before her visits. Instead, I had the distinct impression that she truly loved what she was doing and was taking special delight in visiting customers.

I'm sure you know people who are filled with energy and passion for what they do. They truly enjoy what they're doing and can take pleasure in their work even when it seems like nothing is going right for them.

Customers don't care if you just called 20 people and they all hung up on you, or if a hiring manager just sent a nasty note about you to your boss. The people I know who are happiest (and most successful) are those who are enthusiastic.

Customers Want You to Return
Sometimes customers can't talk to you right then, but they want you to come back.

This was a minor observation, but one that has stuck with me. Several customers were unexpectedly busy when we arrived, despite the fact we'd re-confirmed the appointment the day before. I never felt like people were trying to get rid of us, but rather that there were patients who had showed up with serious issues that needed treatment.

I thought about how many times I've called or emailed someone who wasn't able to give me the information I needed in the timeframe I wanted it. It can be tempting to tell one's self a story about how they don't respect the recruiting function or aren't devoting sufficient time to their open requisition. In reality, they're probably just trying to respond to their own customers.

I've tried to modify my own behaviour as a result of this observation. Last week I received a cold call from an agency that wanted to talk about helping us with some open requisitions. I was on my way to another meeting, but I promised to call her back. She didn't sound too convinced that she'd ever hear back from me, but several days later I did return the call.

It doesn't matter what business you're in. Everyone has customers, and it's important to remember that they are the kings and queens. If you don't have regular customer-facing interactions as part of your responsibilities, be sure to schedule some soon. You'll be glad you did.

[Source: Dr. Michael Kannisto, June 26 2007]

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