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A Cautionary Tale

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e-commerceTechnology companies are notorious for being self-centered rather than customer-centered. In most cases, if every problem was a nail, then every solution would be the technology they developed. This particular company took its top regional salesperson — we’ll call him Bob — and promoted him to VP, National Sales. Bob had a small habit that started to drive his salesforce crazy.

He always capitalized the “C” in customer.

So you might get the following email from Bob:

Please let me have your quarterly forecasts by no later than EOB today. I also would like to see any issues that your Customers had that required escalation. Thanks.

At first, people thought it was a test to see if they were reading his emails. So they would answer with an email that might look like this:

Forecasts are attached. No Customer issues to report.

Nothing happened until the first regional sales meeting. As the room filled, Bob was at the podium welcoming people, saying hello to the folks he knew until the meeting started. The lights dimmed and the first slide went up:

The Customer is always capitalized.

Bob opened with the fact that he knew his emails were making people wonder if his word processing software had a glitch. He told them that always writing “Customer” with an upper case “C” was a habit he developed the year before when he realized that he was doing more lecturing than listening, when he would find himself thinking about his vacation instead of thinking about the problem the customer was explaining. He said he was always ready to pounce in with the solution that his company had developed that would solve the problem, even if it did not exactly solve all the problems.

In one very memorable sales call, the prospect, who had been carefully qualified, abruptly ended the meeting, and before he left, went over to tell Bob that he was disappointed:

We really wanted to work with you folks, but I feel like you barely heard a word I said.

It turned out to be the best sale Bob never made.

In an effort to become more customer-focused, he made a small change and began to capitalize “Customer” to remind himself to really listen, and help Customers really solve their problems or even further define what the problem might be. Even if it did not result in an immediate sale.

You can guess the rest. The whole salesforce started capitalizing “Customer.” Every time they did, they had the fleeting thought that it meant something different needed to happen when they faced their Customers. They became partners, consultants, listeners, advisors, collaborators. Problem-solvers. And their close rates started to increase, and the deals, although fewer, became longer and larger.

Unfortunately, this tale does not have a happy ending. Bob did such a great job that he was scooped up by another company. His replacement, in his first email to “the troops” included the following:

From now on no more capital ‘c’ on customers. We know how to sell. Our numbers show that. We have the best products in the world. If we want to capitalize anything it will be our revenue numbers.

So they went back to business as usual. Selling their products. And they started to consistently lose sales to — can you guess? — Bob’s team who was still capitalizing “Customer” to help them stay Customer-focused.

Moral of this story: When you want to make big changes in your company and move from self-centered to Customer-centered, it helps to make a lot of little changes first.