Rough Seas, Tough Customers

What’s Your Problem?


John Crawley, 49, VP of marketing, Pacific services, at Sea-Land Service Inc., a transportation giant based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Sea-Land is one of the world’s largest shipping companies.


What’s your problem?

“Today three very powerful forces — globalization, technology, and deregulation — are transforming our business. Our relationship with customers is changing, and they’re becoming more demanding than ever. How do we organize conversations about the future of our relationship with them — when many of them are halfway around the world?”

Tell me about it

“The shipping business used to be pretty basic: We moved goods from point A to point B. Not anymore. We are starting to face new competitors. We are diversifying into other services. This is a critical and confusing time for us, and doing right by our key customers is more important than ever. We have more to offer, and we’ll be expecting more from this business.”

What’s your solution?

The Customer Workout. “We invite our best customers to our headquarters for a daylong session that’s part comfort-zone creation, part radical-honesty session. The goal is to collaborate on new ideas and to reinforce relationships.

“We’ve built a fair amount of ‘spectacle’ into this event. We hold it in our tactical-planning center — our version of NASA’s Mission Control. By allowing customers into our central core, we give them an ‘aha’ moment. It makes what we do tangible.

“But this is not an all-day sales pitch. Both parties come prepared. We bring in people from operations, finance, and IT. We look at numbers, review performance, and analyze social trends. We also share the results of our proprietary yield model, which analyzes the economics of our business. That can be a real eye-opener. There’s a risk in being so open about where we make a profit and where we don’t. But when we let customers into our world, they become more inclined to share relevant information about their world.”

Cathy Olofson ( is a writer and editor based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Contact John Crawley by email (