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How About Hanging Out Where Your Customers Hang Out?

by David Brock on January 25th, 2011

When I started my sales career, I sold computers to large banks on Wall Street.  It seemed obvious at the time–and since–that the way to really understand what was going on in the industry and with my customers was to hang out where they did.  I started going to things like the American Bankers Association meetings, I read their journal.  That was where you really learned what was going on in the industry.  I have lunch in the cafeteria’s of my customers, talking to people, learning what was going on.  In some cases, I found it funny, my customers would come to me to find out what was happening–I got around more than they did.

I’d talk to lots of bankers and brokers.  I even tipped a few beers at the the favorite watering holes around Wall Street, talking about what was going on, hearing different views, becoming enmeshed in the worlds of my customers.  It was important to absorb everything I could, because then I could present new ideas to my customers, or jump on new opportunities very early on.  I even started playing squash, both because I liked it, and because lots of bankers in Wall Street at the time hung out around the squash courts.

It served me well, I got a sense of what was going on in the industry, what the latest issues were, even the latest rumors.  Many of the people I met became friends, they in turn introduced me to others people in the industry.  After a few years, when I needed some information, I could pick up the phone and call any number of people to get some insight or even an introduction.  I found, because people knew I was knowledgeable in a certain industry or another, they would start calling me to see what was going on or to ask my opinion.

Over the years, as my career progressed and I moved into different sales jobs and territories, it just seemed natural to hang out where my customer hung out.  I became an avid conference attender, reader, trade show participant–wherever my customers were, I tried to spend time.

By now, most of you are saying, “Well duhhhh…, even the greenest sales person knows it’s great to hang out where customers are!”  It’s obvious and part of Sales 101.

That’s why I’m confused these days.  See, customers are hanging out someplace new, they’re online.  Sure they’re still attending conferences, reading the journals, hanging out in local water holes.  I’m also hanging out with a lot of customers on bike races and triathlons, so they’re still in the traditional places.  But more and more, they are hanging out in a new place-on the web.   They are researching, learning, participating in forums, discussion groups.

Customers are shifting where they’re hanging out–increasingly it’s moving to the web.  It varies based in industry, where you are in the world, and even the level the customer holds in an organization.  Over the last two years, I’ve been conducting an informal poll of sales people I meet.  I ask them, “Other than from you, where do your customers learn about your types of products and solutions?”  Web based research is always in the top 3 responses I get–whether it’s a consumer product, a sophisticated financial offering, a complex manufacturing system.  People are getting information about what they might want to buy from the web.

Now this brings me back to my point of confusion.  If “in the old days” hanging out where your customers are was what every sales person did, why do so many refuse to hang out where there customers are today?  Why do sales people resist participating in social media–listening, learning, discussing, stating their views and opinions?  Why does the discussion spark such heated debates?  Why does it, at times, seem so polarizing?

Miles Austin, wrote an interesting piece along a similar vein.  It’s worth checking out  The Invisible Sales Rep.  Todd Youngblood extended the discussion in his post, All Sales Reps Should Blog (though I’m still in the blogging is optional camp). 

To me, it’s just a matter of Sales 101, hang out where your customers hang out.  They’re still hanging out in all the traditional places—we have to be there.  But they’ve discovered some new place to hang out–we need to be there too.  If you aren’t hanging out with your customers, you can be sure your competition is.

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14 Comments
  1. Great point Dave.
    Now that the internet is around there are a lot more ways to connect with your customers, but often your customers are harder to find.
    The regular “Water holes” of old don’t exist anymore.

    Now people are all over the internet, a blog is a great way to gather people to your site and make you the water hole.
    Hanging around other popular blogs is a great way as well, just as newsites and forums can help as well.

    It is a brave new world.

  2. Great point Dave, like you I have been hanging out a lot where my customers are. Visiting their conferences and even their customers conferences and it has always been valued a lot.

    Besides learning a lot about their business and industry and with that indeed becoming a person to tell them about what’s cooking in their business, there is an interesting side effect to hanging out in their backyard: Planning meetings with customers in their offices is always challenging schedule-wise, at conferences they magically always have 10-20 minutes available for a conversation. Just enough to spark interest and agree on a next meeting, in the office.

    Social media sparks a lot of confusion indeed, many people still don’t understand it, both customers and sales people. That by itself is another debate. But some customers are there and so right now in sales, business development, or any other customer facing relationship we should hang out where our customers are: both in real life and in the virtual world! Fully agree with your point made.

    • Thanks for joining the discussion Peter. Just as sales people are migrating slowly, customers are migrating slowly. Hanging out exclusively in social media isn’t the answer either. We have to meet customers where they are at, both in and out of the virtual world! Thanks for the comment!

  3. Dave,

    I agree–mostly. I just posted a blog yesterday (http://salesandmanagementblog.com Is It Really a 2.0 World for Sellers?) that quotes a couple of sources that indicate that mass flow to the internet is there–sorta. One study indicates that 79% of Americans age 12+ use the internet but more than half of those only to socialize with their circle of friends.

    That creates a issue for most salespeople since more than 60% of their market isn’t reachable via the internet. Not saying they shouldn’t be spending time on net and engaging social media, the question isn’t should they but how much time should be devoted to it when the majority of their market isn’t there yet?

    • I’m absolutely in agreement. I think the root issue is “meeting the customer where they are at.” There are zealots on either side of this issue. Some say social media is the only thing, others say not ready for prime time. It’s a meaningless argument, where ever our customers are, we have to be there as well—in the real world and in the virtual world. As they shift where they are spending their time, we have to shift as well. Thanks for joining the discussion. Regards, Dave

  4. Hi, Dave. Best logic path re Social Media yet. I love how you take the audience through the hanging out in person to hanging out on-line.

    To the points regarding that this may be ahead of the curve, or all prospects/industries aren’t completely social yet, I’d argue that “ahead of the curve” is precisely where great sellers need to be.

    • Thanks for the comment and compliment Maureen! Leaders are always leading and by definition ahead of the curve! Great point!

  5. A-freaking-men! You are so right…the philosophy has not changed; only the tool has changed. But now, instead of having to go to one cafeteria a day, you can go to many. Your time is much more efficient. But people are so afraid of the negative things others will say about them online (as if they don’t say negative things offline) and they’re afraid of giving up control (as if they’ve ever had it) so they prefer to stick their heads in the sand. I hear lots of “my customer isn’t online” or “it takes too much time” or “I just don’t get it” or “this is just for my kids – my customer is old school.” There are lots of excuses and no action.

    • Gini–I can tell you don’t feel strongly about this topic 😉 Thanks for joining the discussion. We can always find excuses not to do anything. The key question is not whether our customers are there or not—they will be. If we aren’t establishing our leadership and if we aren’t there as our customer arrive, we’ve lost tremendous opportunity. Thanks for joining the discussion, hope to see you here more!

  6. David,

    A compelling argument that I will find useful in working with some of my sales clients who resist the social media presence. Some people think of the internet spaces as “not real” — so likening them to other familiar hang-outs makes such good sense. And for those of us already interacting in those spaces, we know they’re populated by real people, having real conversations, and doing real business as a result.

    Thanks!

    • Thanks for the note Barbara! The resistance just doesn’t make sense. If our customers are already “hanging out” here, we’d be fools not to. If our customers aren’t here yet, they will be! Thanks for contributing!

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