Face to face with customers

Yesterday I went on sales calls in New York City and Long Island.

I caught the 6 am American flight from Raleigh to LaGuardia, worked through my inbox as a beautiful sunrise turned the Outer Banks orange and purple, landed, and caught a cab for a fast ride to a frayed Starbucks choked with Columbia students. There were no outlets, the music was too loud, but the coffee did it’s job and I kept banging through email and instant messages until my colleague — a person I had never met before face-to-face — gave me a call to say he was sitting on the bench outside.

I belonged to him for the day, part of a program to get executives in front of customers. This was my first series of sales calls in a very long time, the first calls I’ve done with a salesman since the early days of Forbes.com in 1995 when Miguel Forbes and I would extol the brave new world of banner advertising and click-thru’s to skeptical agencies and marketers from Manhattan to Santa Monica.

I loved and still love sales calls. Sales was forbidden to reporters, who are supposed to never lower themselves to the level of the dirty world of commerce in the name of journalistic objectivity. Me, I thought it was a complete adrenalin rush to have someone commit to a $250,000 sponsorship after I babbled and waved my hands for 15 minutes. This was the world of Glengarry Glen Ross, where “coffee was for closers” and it all came down to the leads.

What I heard yesterday, from six different people at three different institutions, was the most accurate and direct feedback available about:

  • The quality of our website
  • The quality of our service and support organization
  • Our warranty and return policies
  • Advice on corporate branding
  • Wish-lists on how our customers want to order from us, the tools they need, the tools they like from our competition
  • Stories of bad customer service
  • Headaches in managing IT organizations with shrinking staffs
  • Utilities and tools that are needed to make the management of our products easier
  • Praise for the salesman I was accompanying

What was most interesting is what was being sold was not the product per se — it was taken as a given that the product is what it is and costs what it costs — but the service that surrounds it. Supply, availability, delivery time, invoice accuracy, order tracking, spare parts, on-site service, asset management … This is stuff we talk about a lot internally, but after yesterday I realize those conversations are held in an echo chamber. We can project what they want and need, but unless someone is there to hear it, it’s all theoretical.

An editor-in-chief at a newspaper I worked at in the early 80s used to come out of his office after lunch, a couple hours after the afternoon edition had gone to bed, and would kick reporters out of the newsroom, exhorting them to “Get off your ass and go knock on doors.”

Yesterday was an education for me, one that gave me more ideas on how to improve the business, but more importantly what the priority improvements should be. It’s a trite cliche — particularly for a web marketer who can get insulated from reality by dashboards and GUIs — but getting in front of people delivers more insight and feedback than any survey, poll, or statistic. I plan on doing it again soon.

Oh, and we sold a ton of product yesterday.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “Face to face with customers”

  1. David,

    Glad to hear such a program exists. I’ve an idea for another one. Have execs sit throughout the business in areas they aren’t familiar with and try to do another customer facing job – any job. Try to make things happen – listen to the customer point of view and then try to make it happen. The exec would be allowed to make calls and look things up, but couldn’t introduce themselves by their position. They’d have to be John/Jane Doe.

    While the external view from the customer side you just experienced is crucial, understanding your real capabilities from the inside out are also key. I think when you put those two views together you can see what needs to change, and how.

    I think this is true for pretty much any business.

  2. Good point. A colleague spent a day in our call center listening to the tele reps work with customers. Came away with a lot of insights. Some companies, like Fidelity, route overflow telephone calls right to executive desks. Walk-a-mile-in-my-shoe experience is a good thing.

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