on two secret weapons to gain the selling high ground: information and
surprise. The more information you have about your clients and customers,
the better you can serve their needs, and the more likely you are to
get the sale.
Some people go to
great lengths to find out about their customers and clients. Harvey
McKay, in his book Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive,
advocates collecting 66 different items of information about every customer,
including things like your religious affiliation and the sport teams
you follow. These tidbits can be very useful for making small-talk,
but you run the risk of alienating your prospect if the information
is not used with compassion and tact.
I learned an important
lesson recently about gathering customer information, and then using
it appropriately. A client in San Francisco had asked me to address
the company's annual all-staff meeting, and discuss ways in which they
might improve customer service. The owner furnished a wealth of background
material. I spent several days reading their publications, internal
documents, and strategic plans. In addition, I interviewed several key
managers, and a few production and line people as well.
The workshop opened
on a light note, with a humorous stock speech about examples of poor
service. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the format. Now that they were
loosened up, it was time to get down to the nitty-gritty. In the second
segment, the discussions focused on how poor communication was leading
to service failures within their organization. This firm's biggest problem
was that internal power struggles were introducing costly delays and
errors into the production process. Department heads were asked publicly
to commit to giving internal customers more support. Without naming
names, I brought up several specific cases where this had been an issue.
In the third segment, I suggested several specific tactics, and challenged
the management team to "turn the company up-side-down," to make specific
changes that would empower more people to serve customers. The owner
sat in the front row, obviously relishing the whole process, and I flew
home thinking that I had done a bang-up job.
The Personnel Manager
called a week later with the bad news. Reactions were far from universally
positive. Armed with all this formidable reconnaissance, I was able
to walk them right into the hot issues. But because the discussions
cut to the bone, and were backed by an intimate knowledge of the company,
the intervention was a very intense and emotional experience for the
employees. Their discomfort got in the way of their hearing the content,
and they projected their annoyance on a myriad of unrelated, otherwise
neutral aspects of the presentation. Some people complained about what
they perceived to be attacks on their colleagues. Others protested being
"put on the spot" in front of their management. One person objected
to my impudent use of "offensive and highly inappropriate" humor (material
that I've used for years without incident). One manager even went into
a panic thinking that his boss was expecting him to quit. Oddly, the
people who really were being talked about were grateful for the opportunity
to clear the air. What was clear was that several people had completely
missed the point of the meeting.
Part of the problem
was that we took them by surprise. No one would dispute the need to
be frank and direct, but proper expectations management would have eased
the blow considerably. The group was expecting a basic three-hour seminar
on customer service. I should have asked the owner to explain in advance
that a lot of research had gone into my preparations, and that the program
would address specific service problems in their operations.
We also should have
asked people in advance for permission to use their examples. In a small
company, and even in many large ones, it's almost impossible to protect
the anonymity of your sources. People know who you're talking about,
or worse yet, they think they know, and the implication of guilt falls
upon the wrong heads. The examples could have been disguised as if they
had happened somewhere else. Better still, I could have played the naive
outsider, but asked pointed questions about the issues I knew to be
hot topics. Ideally, the employees themselves would have done the disclosure.
Instead, I was too eager to show off how well I had done my homework.
I impressed the General, but the troops in the trenches didn't buy it.