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How far will you go for your customers…even to Baku?

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December 19, 2016 by
How far will you go for your customers…even to Baku?

The Story

Fresh out of college, I went to work for a small technology consulting firm in Chicago. One of my first customer meetings proved to be one of the most memorable! I found myself sitting in with the customer’s technology executive, our business development guy, and another one of our consultants. Here’s where the fun began. The executive had both a unique look and quite a bit of personality. Picture a sharp-dressed gentlemen, likely in his early fifties, his chiseled face surrounded by slightly graying hair, slicked back into a shoulder length pony tail. Every movement he made was fluid yet dramatic. As he welcomed us into his office, the combination of his deep, accented voice and his unique look brought images of Transylvania to mind. The initial part of the conversation was not too memorable…that is until our business development guy started playing with a little metal box on the executive’s desk.

“What” he started (pronounced more like “Vhut”), “What are you doing?”

“Just checking out your business card holder,” Mr. Business Development replied.

The other consultant and I shared a look…oh boy…it’s about to get interesting…

To make a long story short, after a severe scolding we found what the “business cards” actually were. He slowly opened the container, pulled out a very expensive cigarette, and placed it in a silver cigarette holder. In a single motion, his hand glided to the drawer and pulled out a custom Zippo lighter. With a flick of his wrist, the lighter ignited. He turned his head to the side and slowly (and dramatically) lit up.

“So…[inhale]…I understand you can help me” he continued as he leaned back in his chair holding his cigarette over his shoulder, turned his head, and exhaled toward some strange vent-like machine in his window. Yeah…that’s right. This guy had an iron-lung ventilator thing installed in his office so that he could smoke indoors. This was starting to feel more like James Bond than Transylvania.

So we gave him our pitch and explained how we could help, all the while making sure our business development guy didn’t touch anything else. As we finished our pitch, we could tell that our client was very excited about our offering.

Silence. A dramatic drag on the cigarette as his eyes bore into us. Pause. Head turned to the side and an equally dramatic exhale into the iron lung. He repeated this another time as he continued to measure us.

Finally he broke the silence. “Others have failed, but this…this is exactly what I need (don’t forget his accent). Very good.”

We were about to break into our celebratory dance when he asked another key question, “So, you will travel?”

Picturing a fun international trip for himself, our business development guy jumped right in. “Absolutely! We do work around the world: Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Paris…this time of year, Hawaii would be nice. We’d be more than happy to go wherever we are needed.”

The exec: “This is good.” His lips formed a mischievous and somewhat frightening grin as he continued, “Will you travel…[toking on the cigarette]…[exhale]…even to Baku?”

Picturing an exotic destination, our business development guy didn’t miss a beat. “Absolutely. Our bags are already packed.”

The execs smile was no longer mischievous; it had shifted and was now menacing as he gave the classic bad-guy laugh. Then he said, “Interesting. Do you know where Baku is?”

The other consultant and I, well…our eyes bored into our business development guy trying to communicate “ix-nay on the travel.” Too late. Our business development guy didn’t quite get the message and jumped in before I could stop him, “We’ll go wherever you need us. Like I said, we are ready and willing to travel the globe.”

Looking delighted with himself, the exec replied, “This is good. My people, they will not even go to Baku. But you will go? This is very good.”

Baku bullet holes

The side entrance to the office in Baku. Its nice that the planters are virtually unscathed.

Well, it turns out that Baku (which, as a side note, was actually featured in a James Bond movie) had been under Russian control, but has been highly contested as it has quite a bit of oil under its soil. The client’s local offices were riddled with bullet holes and no sane person would voluntarily travel there…especially to do a technology upgrade.

As this was explained to us, our business development guy quickly changed his story. “Yeah, these guys love to travel. Me? Not so much. But, these guys are ready to go…”

The Point

From the moment we stepped into his office, what did our team convey? Did we leave the customer with a sense that we wanted to help them? Or did we come across as being more interested in a personal trip? We had a superior product that completely met his need, but we lost the business. Simply put, he didn’t trust us.

That day, I learned an important lesson: It takes a lot to build trust, but a few actions of just one employee can destroy it. To build trust, we need to focus on the customer’s best interests. We need to make sure that they are poised for success.

At the same time, remember that your customers are smart…it’s blatantly obvious to them when they work with an employee who isn’t focused on them. To avoid losing that hard fought trust, we’ve got to foster a culture where each employee’s words and actions convey that they have the customer’s best interests in mind. Invest in your employees so that they really get this.

Does your entire organization have your customers’ interests at the forefront? Would your customers agree with your answer?

  • Curtis

    Crazy story. And a good reminder about building trust.