Knowing something about your customer is just as important as knowing everything about your product. Take politicians, for example. A politician will support your proposition only as long as it is politically popular or uncommonly rewarding.
That isn’t to say that pols are any less honest or reliable than the rest of us. It’s just that politicians must shift positions constantly to keep up with the people they are supposed to be leading. Legislators, particularly in faraway places such as Washington, tend to be a little less reliable than governors, who are under closer local scrutiny, but the same principle holds. It is the duty of someone who wants something from a politician either to (a) create the public climate that makes supporting that position attractive, or (b) do whatever is necessary so that a politico will return a favor from time to time—like fundraising or even organizational work.
Before you choose one tactic or the other, you had better be certain with whom you are dealing. In this case, the governor was the type of politician who thought he had something his constituents would truly want. The Ghermezians and the governor both went public together, and when it became rapidly apparent that the brothers had not created the proper climate of public opinion, the governor backed off.
To the Ghermezians’ credit, they finally got the message, hired local lobbyists, and put the pieces back together. After having asked for several hundred million dollars at the legislature and getting completely skunked, they got help at the municipal level. The current scaled-down version—call it a mini mega-mall—could have been even bigger. In fact, the Ghermezians created the 5.3-million-square-foot West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada, the largest shopping center in the world, starting in 1981.
Identifying the customer does not mean that you make your pitch directly to that customer. Selling the governor in this case was easy… too easy. What the Ghermezians should have done was first build a support structure of “influencers” around that governor—the press, the unions, popular opinion, his own party, and so on—before pitching the main man. That involves a professional PR effort: stories extolling their already successful mall; leaks about competing cities plotting to sweep the Ghermezians into their fold; orchestrated demand for the product from leading opinion-makers. None of this groundwork was laid. Unfortunately (for the Brothers Ghermezian), once the governor discovered he had no crew, it was time to abandon ship.
At Mackay Envelope Company, you wouldn’t believe how much we know about our customers. The IRS wouldn’t believe how much we know about our customers. All our salespeople on our staff fill out a 66-question profile of each one of their customers. We’re not talking about the customer’s taste in envelopes, either. We want to know, based on observation and routine conversation, what our customer is like as a human being, what he feels strongly about, what he’s most proud of having achieved, and what the status symbols are in his office.
When you know your customers, some of their special interests or characteristics, you always have a basis for contacting and talking to them. I have a customer who’s a devoted Chicago Cubs baseball fan. The Cubs’ failure to make it to the top continues. That’s usually good for at least half a dozen condolence messages a year. I don’t sit there scribbling notes about the latest fashions in envelopes. I write about the Cubs; he writes about the envelopes.
I have another customer who’s a stamp collector. No matter where I go, all over the world, I send him unusual and exotic stamps. I think he must like that. He’s been a customer for nearly forty years, and in all that time, I’ve met him only once.
Knowing your customer means knowing what your customer really wants. Maybe it is your product, but maybe there’s something else, too: recognition, respect, reliability, concern, service, a feeling of self-importance, friendship, help—things all of us care more about as human beings than we care about malls or envelopes.
Excerpted from Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive