I used to work for a well-known consulting firm where my group led thought leadership programs. The events we put on were a huge success. At a time when most companies struggled to put “butts in seats,” we saw overflow. What did we do that was so special? Did we focus on topics that no one else was covering? Assemble rosters of A-list speakers? Jet attendees off to exotic locales? No. There was nothing remarkable about our events, topics, speakers, or locations. In fact, sometimes they were rather low budget.
Our events were unique because they delivered something our customers, and prospective customers, couldn’t get anywhere else.
First, we created a safe space for our customers. That meant they could relax and share their plans and challenges with the people in the room – confident that they would not be exposed to “sales harassment” from our organization when the event was through.
Second, we took the time to truly listen to our customers. These events were designed to promote the flow of ideas – not as a platform for us to drone on about our latest services, offerings, or accolades. We talked to everyone in the room, but mostly we kept an ear to the conversations happening around us.
Third, we used the events to create community among our customers. People went to our events not because we were there, but because their peers were there.
About ten years ago, in Chicago, we gathered a group of 150 CIOs of large organizations…in the basement of a Knights of Columbus hall.
Pool tables were set up in the front of the room; we had a scotch tasting and a steak dinner in the back. On every table, there were cigars, a cutter, and a cheat sheet on cigar etiquette. By midnight, long after the “official” event was over, everyone was still there. There were suit jackets strewn on chairs around the room; roars of laughter could be heard from mixed groups of customers, consultants, and sales people; and a few extra people had showed up when their colleagues called and told them to come by after dinner.
How did we delight a room full of current and prospective customers, at a cost of less than $50 per person?
We catered to their needs. We knew that IT executives were typically more reserved than the average executive and would appreciate a low-key venue, away from the public eye. We also knew that they were under enormous pressure on the job and needed a bit of fun – not the mandatory fun of going to a baseball game on a cushy corporate bus but real, human, unrehearsed fun. The scotch tasting led by an expert and the cigar cheat sheets gave them topics to convene around – while providing some social lubrication. Naturally, as they played pool, they talked with each other about life, sports, kids, books, and travel. And they got to know each other as people. People they could rely on in the future when they had a work-related question or wanted feedback on a vendor.
Upon leaving the event, backs were patted, business cards were exchanged, and sales were made.
Not immediately, and not because we hit the phones with a hard sell. But eventually and steadily, because we invested in ongoing, relationship-building activities with our customers. Because we didn’t shout about how great we were, but had meaningful dialogues around the issues that our customers took the time to share with us.
So yes, invest in a snazzy CRM database. But realize that having one is not enough. You also need to incentivize your marketing, sales, and customer care teams to have continual conversations with customers and demonstrate that your company cares about them – whether the interaction is happening in person or online.
That’s what listening means. That’s how hearing and responding works. That’s what customer intimacy looks like.