By Saeed Khan
Recently I managed to get out for a few days to meet with some customers. I talk to customers every month, but the vast majority of those discussions are by phone/webinar. And while a fair number of those calls are informative, it’s easy to forget what you lose in a conversation, when the other person (or people) are simply disembodied voices traveling across the phone line.
One of the people I met with on the trip (let’s call her Sachiko) was someone with whom I’ve been communicating for about 18 months. We’ve had quite a few calls over that period of time discussing how she was using our products. She’s provided some great feedback over the last year and a half, and has introduced me to other members of her team. And I’ve had a couple of calls with a couple of them as well.
Having said that, there was a certain dynamic in the meeting that was clearly different than any of our phone-based discussions. As we were talking, the people in the meeting — Sachiko and a couple of her cow0rkers — provided details of company initiatives and issues we’d never discussed previously. They also opened up about some product issues, previously unmentioned. It was a great discussion.
As I wrote up my notes that evening, I wondered why they’d never mentioned these things before. It seems there was a level of openness (or maybe trust?) that existed in the face-to-face meeting that wasn’t there over the phone. Perhaps actually seeing the person you’re speaking with and shaking their hand and greeting them in person changes our mindset about the person we are speaking to.
User Group Therapy?
The next day, I attended a local user group meeting. In this meeting, there were about 20 local area customers who came out to a hotel for a day of education, discussion and networking. I love going to user group meetings because I always end up getting into great discussions with customers. Sometimes these are over lunch, or out in a hallway, or during some planned round-table sessions.
What’s surprising in these meetings, even though there are people from many companies there, honestly and openness abounds. Now I have to do a bit of initial prying to get people to open up, but once they do, and they feel comfortable, the discussion blossoms. And there I am, the Product Manager, trying to figure out the best way to answer their questions, and at the same time get the input and opinions of almost two dozen customers seated right in front of me. How valuable is that?
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that if I’d taken some basic human psychology classes in university, they would have benefited me greatly in my current career. Although we spend a lot of time figuring out the best ways to manipulate technology to deliver great products, the real value we can deliver is to truly understand the people who we call our customers and prospects.
Face -to-face customer meetings are an investment, not an expense
And while I completely understand that given current economic conditions force us to be prudent with how we spend money — and air travel, hotels etc. can be quite costly — having face to face meetings that have NO sales agenda, should be seen as an investment with a huge payoff. Aside from the obvious additional insight gains, meeting people face-to-face strengthens whatever relationship you have with them. It’s basic human nature.
We are social creatures, but the huge irony of communication technology, and “social media” is that they claim to increase “connection” and “engagement” while simultaneously minimizing human contact. Sounds to me like a problem, not a solution.
What do you think? How important are face-to-face customer meetings in helping gain insight into your customers’ or prospects’ needs?
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