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Close To The Customer; How Close Is Too Close?
By Orvel Ray Wilson   Printer Friendly Version

Guerrillas depend 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.

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