In the late 1980s, the Open Systems movement started in the server industry. Back then, all computer operating systems were proprietary, leaving information technology (IT) departments, with multiple computing environments that they needed to integrate to allow information sharing across multiple computing environments. It was a huge cost.
Open Systems was driven by the invention of the UNIX operating system, at Bell Labs, but it was maintained by a broad user community rather than a single computer company. Companies no longer had to be tied to one computing hardware company but instead would have the freedom to choose whichever computer solution best served their needs. This meant that tools or applications built for UNIX could be available to users of any hardware. No longer did you have to buy applications and tools from just one company.
This innovation changed how companies made computer buying decisions putting the burden on computer companies to prove they were the best at supporting an Open Systems environment. At HP, we decided to lead the effort in educating our customers on Open Systems through a course at MIT taught by Cambridge Technologies Group. We would take technology executives from major corporations, to a two-day class on MIT’s campus, with the account manager as host.
In addition to the classroom training, we had social time (not Facebook and Twitter). We actually hosted our customers at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts where we enjoyed incredible art and a nice meal. Each account manager toured the museum with their customer and sat next to them at dinner.
At one session, I was hosting Boeing’s CIO who was not a fan of HP or sales people. We toured the museum for about an hour before sitting down for dinner. I thanked him for being there and asked him for his perception of day one. He begrudgingly spent about 2 minutes sharing thoughts and questions. I had prepared my 3-minute exchange and used it to respond to his questions regarding HP’s commitment to Open Systems and our capabilities in helping Boeing make the change. It was a true exchange as the VP asked a few questions during that brief three minutes even though I could tell he just didn’t want to be there.
After about five minutes discussing Open Systems, I asked him what he liked doing when he wasn’t working. He turned to me with a big smile and launched into his love of hiking and travel. He wanted to know about me as well, leading to a long talk about music, fishing and the challenges of work/life balance. Unfortunately, the account manager sitting on the other side of my customer went into full pitch mode and even pulled out slides. To make things worse, the account manager was a loud talker and he literally talked through the entire meal.
After we finished dessert we had another 45 minutes scheduled for the customers to get a private museum tour without us, before our buses showed up to take them back to the hotel. To my pleasant surprise, the CIO turned and shook my hand saying, “Really enjoyed our conversation, Rick. You want to go see the Renoir exhibit? By the way, thanks for not doing to me what that guy did to his customer.” We not only enjoyed the Renoir art but, after that trip, we had bi-monthly meetings and I could get an appointment with him whenever I needed.
A sad but telling end to this story… The other account manager who talked through the whole meal, came up to me just before the buses arrived and asked, “Hey, have you seen my customer? I can’t find him.” The customer had taken a taxi back to the hotel and didn’t come back to class the next day.
It doesn’t take much to find a way to relate to your customers and thus boost your CredABILITY. It just takes observation, genuine curiosity and listening with ears and eyes. Starting a discussion with a goal of what you want to get across is good. However, fitting it into the discussion, especially during a social situation, is much more effective than over- pitching and under-relating.