I make and sell envelopes. Everyone uses envelopes. So is everyone my potential customer? No way. The margins in the envelope business are paper thin, so my profitability depends on volume, huge volume. That eliminates 99.9 percent of the world’s envelope users.
Geography does it for another 99.9 percent. Delivery costs are a huge factor in bidding an envelope job. Almost any envelope company within 25 miles of a customer can offer a similar product at a better price than another outfit a couple of hundred miles away.
That’s why there are few national envelope companies. We all carve out our little territories and protect them like put bulls. Who are my customers? They are relatively few, but they are very, very precious to me. Everyone has his or her own special needs, requirements, and quirks. Knowing what those are and how to respond to them is not just a concern. It’s a career.
It’s the same for every salesperson. Your success does not depend on your product, no matter how universal or indispensable you think it is. It depends on how well you know your customers. It means meeting their needs before they even know they have them.
The same advice applies even when you’re not calling on customers, but are buried somewhere in the bowels of the corporate bureaucracy.
Years ago many computer companies grew by filling the niches IBM wasn’t serving. IBM couldn’t be bothered with niche markets. They were too big; the niches were too small. Their strategy was to wait until those markets developed sufficiently to become profitable. Then they would roll in and co-opt the customers with their own products.
It turned out that the little companies serving the little niches were on to something. Increasingly, end users wanted their own work stations, not the big mainframes IBM made. By the time IBM woke up, it was too late. The customers they had hoped they could co-opt had already found the products that met their needs.
A sadder and wiser IBM is now back in the game, but not before they got a new president, this time a marketing guy from R.J. Reynolds, and a new attitude about serving their customers.
The cautionary tale has not been lost on me. I’m aware that waiting around for a customer to meet my requirements is a lot riskier than me meeting their requirements, even when they are a little too small or a little too distant to be predictable. No, not everyone is my customer. We don’t need every customer, just the right customers.
Mackay’s Moral: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” –Dirty Harry
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