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Staying Close to the Customer as a Growth Strategy
April 2, 2010
Written By: Pete Petersen

A high percentage of our clients are talking a lot about growing the topline of their businesses as they chart a course to recover from the economic downturn. They have a very broad array of issues to consider including sales and marketing effectiveness, the competition and product shifts driven by the economy. One of the areas many management teams have overlooked is staying close to their customers. In fact many have discovered that they have become very isolated from their customers. In the past couple year’s management time has frequently been spent on cost cutting, operating issues, firefighting, bankers and a host of meetings. Gradually customer on site meetings have been replaced with phone calls which have then been  replaced with information from the sales team which may be filtered or at best viewed through a single lens. Ultimately the bulk of the information has come through customer reports or surveys and suddenly the old relationships have evolved into faceless transactions. At that point several things have happened. Company directional decisions have been made in a vacuum with limited real understanding of changing customer issues and needs. Next, customer relationships have become strained as management interaction has been limited only to stepping in when significant problems arise leading to “oh no not another customer call”. And finally customer loyalty has drifted away as their leaders become weary of dealing with mid level sales, service and management teams that just aren’t connecting. 

What’s the answer to getting back in touch with your customers?
It is important for Senior Management to remember that without customers there is no business. They have the money, buy your products and keep you employed. Additionally they too operate businesses and have a world of experience to draw from. Once these basic realizations are made it becomes a matter of priorities and execution. Why not a have mandate that all senior leaders, including HR, IT and R&D, spend at least 3-4 days of the year meeting with key clients on their turf?
There is nothing quite like meeting with customers at their business. Telephone calls and emails are useful but can’t replace on site visits. The company culture, the issues, the feedback all take on a new dimension when you are sitting across from the customer or touring their operations as opposed to being in the cozy confines of your office. Additionally customers really do like to show off their businesses and air their opinions. Ask questions, lots of them, about their direction, what is working for them, what isn’t working and the key issues their company is facing. Restrain yourself from trying to sell something and really listen to their answers. Your customers are successful for a reason ... there is much to be learned. And don’t be inclined to judge or discount their perspective too soon. Ruminate on their business model, their ideas and their strategies and consider the fit with your growth plans.
When you leave, your customers will thank you and when your management team uses what they have learned your business will be wiser and better prepared to grow the right way.

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