Five years ago when I interviewed with Fritzi Woods, the owner of PrimeSource, for the position of vice president of operations, she asked me, "What is your business philosophy?" I was fortunate to have had prior mentors who challenged me to think about the world in that way. I was quick with my response. "It's only about two things: customers and products."
Regardless of economic conditions, geographic location or geopolitical environment, the way we satisfy our customers' needs is the cornerstone of all our businesses. The products we sell, whether physical material, services such as design, or a mixture of both, all revolve around unmet customer needs. Certainly economics, geography and politics play a role in shaping the customers' needs, but it is our role as industry experts to anticipate and even create demand within the industry.
All industries commoditize as they mature. It's not a matter of if — it's a matter of when. As leaders in our industry today it is our job to inspire and drive the changes that will create incremental economic value for our customers. That certainly sounds different than just selling tableware and warewashing equipment.
How can we create this change?
At PrimeSource we pride ourselves on knowing our customers and becoming indispensable to them. I often use the term "customer intimacy" with our staff. When you know your customers deeply, opportunities present themselves. Each of us can remember a fortuitous moment when an idea and a customer came together to spawn a meaningful change for both. Those moments happen not just when you are at the customer's place of business but when you are inside his mind as well.
Knowing the customer can only take us so far without ethics and integrity. Making the sale about what is right and not about what's "right now" will create a deep bond of unbreakable trust which will allow your customers to take risks with you they otherwise would not. No matter how well you know your customer, without ethics the sales cycle becomes about manipulation.
If customers are the doors, then products are the keys that unlock them. When we think about products, we need to think of them a little more abstractly; what we sell isn't always in a box. Many of us sell traditional services such as delivery and repair. Some of us sell design services and other offerings. But how many of us think about what we sell abstractly — as solutions? Every hotel, restaurant and institution in the country has problems, and each is looking for someone to provide a solution.
I am not suggesting you radically diverge from your core competencies. What I am suggesting is that you consider changing the way you define a product. When you change the definition of a product, you change the way you talk about it with your customers, and you create a virtuous cycle of repeatedly solving problems for them. Your conversation focus changes from, say, griddles to increased revenues. You stop talking about sending the service tech out for repairs and start talking about making an appointment for your FSE advisor to find the solution. I'm not just talking about semantics but a shift in thinking.