It felt like one of the dumbest answers I ever gave in a business meeting. My peers and I were gathered around a conference table for a meeting with our boss in New York who was sitting at the head of the table. He had asked each of us as we went around the room to share our best marketing idea. “Personality,” I blurted out when it came my turn. “If the collective personality of our group creates a positive experience for people they will continue to come back. That’s my best marketing idea,” I explained. That, of course, was not what the boss was looking for. He wanted to hear about some clever gimmick to sell product, not how we conducted ourselves. Looking back I’m still not sure who was more outraged by my answer, my boss who wanted to throw me out of the room, or my peers who wanted to laugh me out of the room.
This occurred in the early 1990’s when I had been turned on to a book called Customers for Life by Carl Sewell, a highly successful luxury car dealer in Dallas. The premise was that by offering customers the very best experience and service they will continue to as customers – for life. So impressed was I by this guy’s message that for a while it became sort of a mantra among the members of my staff, until eventually it became embedded in our culture. “You can influence people’s behavior simply by giving the task or the team a name that evokes the kind of behavior implied by the name,” according to Kouzes and Posner in their book, The Leadership Challenge. “Customers for life” was the name applied in our case. Now this may not seem like a big deal for folks in certain retail and service businesses, but for a bunch of arrogant Wall Street-type bond traders to treat people with dignity and respect was revolutionary and a unique way to market product.
It may appear that I am giving myself a lot of credit about all this, but not so. The credit goes to Carl Sewell’s book, and more importantly to the members of my staff who embraced his message and had the courage to try some different behavior. I felt like a fool even offering such a dumb answer in that meeting in New York, not that it was a bad marketing idea; I was just not equipped to explain it very well. Maybe I should have been thrown out of the room, or laughed out. But in the end it did work; we did develop more and more repeat customers. Many even became “friends for life” as well.