Make Room At The Meeting Table—For Your Customer

Do your customers really trust your company? Ask yourself: If you were the customer, would you trust your company?  

A few years ago I was hired to deliver a talk to some big corporate customers of Siemens AG. We gathered in a fine hotel near Berlin's Brandenburg Gate for a user conference underwritten by the company. Siemens wanted me to impart some lessons the attendees would find useful for dealing with their own customers—how to be more customer-centric, how to coordinate and integrate the customer-facing functions, and how to foster an employee culture that would support more customer-friendly initiatives.    

To my delight, however, I got a lesson of my own at this event, and it has stuck with me ever since. Only a few minutes before I was scheduled to take the stage, one of Siemens’ senior executives took me aside and asked if I had ever heard the story of “the man with the folding chair.” Seeing my blank look, he proceeded to relate it to me:

One day during the go-go '90s, a top Siemens executive had been on his way to sit in on an internal sales meeting at one of the division offices in Germany, when he encountered the division’s sales manager carrying a folding chair with him into the meeting. Curiosity aroused, the exec asked what was going on.  The manager replied that his chair would change the whole character of the discussion at the meeting. “Just watch,” the manager said, as they both entered the conference room. Several people, including sales reps, were already gathered in the room when the manager came in with his chair, unfolded it, and set it down empty next to his own chair. 

“Who are you expecting to join us?” asked some of the sales reps. “Shouldn’t we just get some more chairs brought in here?” others asked, as they leaped up to see where more chairs might be found. 

“No,” the manager replied, “this is my customer’s chair. I brought it to the meeting so my customer can sit right here and listen to our discussion.” Then, with a nod to the empty chair, the manager said the meeting could begin. But, as he had predicted, the character of the discussion was indeed quite different from the typical sales gathering. Several times during the meeting, participants found themselves asking whether a particular point would be made in the same way if the customer were actually sitting there and listening. Would we say this in front of our own customer? What would the customer think of our plan for dealing with this issue? How do we think our customer would interpret this new policy? Would our customer agree with us that this is a good idea, or not?

In the corridors of Siemens this sales manager soon became known as “Der Mann mit dem Klappstuhl,” or “the man with the folding chair.” But there’s a lesson in the story for each of us: We should be putting the customer’s perspective into every discussion we have and every decision we make. Nothing is more important to the long-term health of our business than the trust of our customers.  

Moreover, the e-social revolution continues to make it more and more likely that customers will find out exactly what is said and how it is said, whether they are present in the room with us or not. New technologies mean that transparency is on the rise, and transparency is like a disinfectant for business: it will purify things and help start the healing, but first it’s going to sting like hell.  

Extreme transparency means that customers will soon be demanding Extreme Trust. They will be looking for vendors that are proactively trustworthy—businesses that look out for their interests at all times, just as if they had been in the room with them during the internal discussion of terms, capabilities, or problems.

The simple fact is that your customers couldn’t care less how your systems work, or how complicated your distribution structure is, or what your business challenges are. Nor do they care why you can’t manage to get it together to do what works best for them. They just want what they want when they want it, with no hassle, no unnecessary effort, delivered at a fair price with no tricks, no gimmicks, and no hidden costs or charges. Above all, customers want to take comfort in the idea that they can trust the companies they buy from to respect their interests, even when they aren’t there to watch out for themselves. So ask yourself:

  • If one of your salespeople could make a sale by taking advantage of a customer’s lack of knowledge, would he or she do so? For example, if an employee knows that a product or service is not actually appropriate for a customer, but he sells it anyway because he still gets a commission, what would the company do, if anything?
  • Do you trust your employees, generally, to do the right thing for your customers? If so, how far down in the hierarchy does this trust extend? What steps would you have to take to extend it even further?
  • If an employee discovered a genuine mistake or problem in a product or service, or if he discovered that “we did something wrong,” is it more likely that this would be concealed to avoid getting anyone into trouble, or that it would be reported to management quickly, so the problem could be resolved and future problems avoided?

Try to remember the last time you had an internal meeting to review the sales pipeline, the latest product offering, or the upcoming marketing plan. Now imagine that your customer had actually been in the room with you, at your company’s offices, listening in. If your customer’s presence would have changed the discussion at that internal meeting, either in substance or tone, then for the next meeting I suggest you consider bringing a folding chair of your own.

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[Image: Flickr user MyDigitalSLR]

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