Sunday, March 9, 2008

Align yourself with their customers

If you’re having a tough time reaching out to your prospects, reach out to their customers instead.

In the late 90s, I was the vice president of marketing for an Internet-based company called Construction Zone (CZ). CZ had an idea (not mine) that helped them get over the no-customer hurdle. The company developed a searchable database of formatted building product information. Rather, they wanted to develop a database.

The people who would use such a tool were all for it. They were architects, engineers and others who sought an easy way do so side-by-side comparisons of construction product information. They were also in favor of the online database because they wouldn’t have to pay for it. That would be up to building product manufacturers, whom CZ would have to convince to put their information online where their potential customers could compare it with the competition.

The general reaction from manufacturers to the idea was, “Why should we pay you when you don’t have any architects searching your database?” At the same time, architects and engineers said, “We would love to use your site, but not until you have the product information we want.” CZ needed to produce an egg at the same time it produced a chicken. Therefore, the company began to build credibility by holding listening sessions.

Each listening session consisted of potential users (architects, etc.) and potential customers (building product manufacturers). Architects from large firms were delighted to attend because it gave them a forum to express their vision of a perfect world for finding product information. Manufacturers (CZ’s prospects) eagerly attended because it meant they could be in the same room with their prospects—architects who held the key to millions of dollars in potential business.

CZ briefly outlined its idea for the database, and then sat back and listened as the architects raved about the benefits of such a tool. Rather than promise manufacturers that architects would use the tool if the manufacturers would only put their information there, CZ allowed the architects to say so themselves. It was as if CZ had teamed up with some of the most powerful decision makers in the architectural world.

Another key to the success of the listening sessions was for CZ to LISTEN. The company did not trot out its sales spiel during the sessions. Instead, CZ asked attendees, “What do you think of our idea? How would you make it better?”

The listening sessions helped CZ foster a bit of credibility before they had many customers. When manufacturers saw their potential customers getting excited about the database, they got excited, too. By realizing that CZ was taking their interests seriously, they were more inclined to try a new concept by a new company. Many of the manufacturing companies in those listening sessions eventually became CZ customers.

If the participants in listening sessions had seen the gatherings as a veiled attempt only to generate sales, the events would have been less productive, or even counterproductive. Commit to being as neutral as possible so that you can reap the invaluable information generated.

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