Advice from traveling CEOs on client visits
Two travel-tested CEOs tell why you should flee headquarters and get face-to-face with the market -- and how to be smart about it when you do
Start talking business travel -- a topic guaranteed to prompt eye rolling among most company owners -- and Bob Crawford turns nearly evangelical. Not only does Crawford like being on the road, not only does he think he has to be on the road, he thinks other chief executives are wrong if they're not equally committed to hitting the hustings.
Forget the argument that you're just one person, that you can't be everywhere, and that the telephone takes you to more people more efficiently. "I totally reject that, unabashedly," says Crawford. "It's real hard to listen, get the full content, unless you see the person, feel his or her presence. A telephone gives you only diluted communication."
More to the point, Crawford maintains that his rental-furniture company has grown and prospered specifically because he spends 50% of his time outside his office, accompanying salespeople on calls, going to conventions or chamber of commerce meetings, visiting his showrooms. To be sure, he is an anomaly; equally travel-savvy CEO Jimmy Calano, of CareerTrack, in Boulder, Colo., takes to the skies less enthusiastically (but no less purposefully). And only 15% of CEOs polled from last year's Inc. 500 spend more than half their time making sales calls. Ask the others and they'll groan, saying they're too busy to leave the office for long periods of time. Too much going on.
To which converts respond: That's just the point. There is too much going on -- out there. If you're a CEO and you're staying behind a desk attending to all today's business, you're going to miss learning about the business of tomorrow.
Of course, just being out there isn't enough to ensure you'll reap the benefits of face-to-face commerce. As Calano and Crawford would agree, traveling smart, not simply traveling, is what counts.* * *
In the 10 years since he bought his Arlington Heights, Ill., company, Bob Crawford, 53, has grown Brook Furniture Rental from revenues of $800,000 to $50 million. In part because of one acquisition last year, the company now has 40 showrooms in four states, a staff of about 450, including 55 outside salespeople, and business in both residential-and office-furniture rentals.
As someone with a B.A. in math and physics and an M.B.A. in finance, Crawford doesn't lean toward making decisions from observation and intuition alone; he doesn't let travel-inspired gut responses replace numerical analysis. But he's finding himself in a faster-paced environment -- his clients, he says, are under pressure to make decisions more quickly than they ever have been before. And his reaction to that -- surprising to some -- is to be away from his office more now than ever before. "The CEO has got to be able to sense the marketplace in order to have confidence that he's moving in the right direction," Crawford says emphatically. His goal is to maintain and grow the company's position as the largest furniture-rental company in its markets of Northern California, Southern California, and the Chicago-Milwaukee area. To do that, he says, "the reality is, I need to be able to temper reported facts and trends with my own feeling for the real, current market climate."
When he's on the road, Crawford has two aims: to see things he believes he'd miss getting from secondhand reports, and to teach and coach his staff. "When I'm in the field I'm doing both at the same time," he says. "Anything else I'd pretend was on my calendar is subordinate. Leading is teaching. It's unheralded because it's time-consuming and it's tough to ask questions and probe people and listen. It's extremely demanding. "But it's critical." Crawford's personality and training reinforce his commitment: he started as a salesman and has the physical stamina and concentration that meeting face-to-face with customers and industry players demands.
So how does one travel well? How do you use your time on the road sensibly, gather information that will be useful, and capitalize on what you learn? Here are Crawford's recommendations:
Make sure the office can do without you. Crawford has structured his company around his commitment to being on the road the majority of the time. Being away from the office has required him to delegate tasks and invest in hiring and training strong team members. "If you can't leave the office because you have a weak vice-president of finance or weak administrative VPs, then you've got a problem," says Crawford -- a problem that should trouble you even if you don't plan to travel.
Commit to the time. Scheduling blocks of time provides a discipline that's a necessary first step, says Crawford. "Make the commitment to spend, say, every Tuesday in the field. And commit to upping that to two days a week three months later."
Let others tell you where you're needed. When he's setting up a training day to travel with a salesperson for a 4-or 8-or 14-hour stretch, Crawford asks his regional managers for recommendations. Who is at a point where a new infusion of selling tactics might be helpful? "A manager recently asked me to go with one salesman who was working on a new kind of business for us, who thought that it would be good for me to hear more about the new area. And the timing was right -- I hadn't been with him for five or six months."
Travel in teams of three. Teaching, to be effective, requires follow-through. "I never accompany a salesperson alone; I always have that person's boss or boss's boss there with me," says Crawford. "My job is to be facilitator and initiator. I am not going to be there tomorrow to supervise the follow-up. Someone else has to do that."
Talk about your objectives. In the car Crawford and his team discuss their goals -- everything from locking up an account with a contract to just getting general information. "Sure, we'd like to have hard, cold objectives of closing a sale each time, but the customer might not be ready; we might not have the information to close a deal." What's more, he adds, "I'm teaching that it's critical to think on the front end."
Clarify who will take the lead. "We usually set it up so the salesperson will do the principal handling. The boss -- the vice-president or district manager -- we instruct to remain mute so we don't confuse things with too many people, and I might jump in and say, 'I hope you don't mind if I ask a question or two.' If the customer starts playing to me, I'll say, 'I think Joe has a great response to that.'
Put the customers at ease. "We'll joke about it coming in. We'll say, 'I hope you don't mind being triple-teamed,' that sort of thing. Many places, though, when I walk in and tell them I'm the owner and CEO, their jaws will drop," because they're impressed and because it's so unusual.
Pump every meeting for industry information. In most meetings -- especially sales meetings -- people become obsessed with getting their own messages out. Listening and responding to information and anxieties almost have to be active goals, says Crawford, or else they can be forgotten. "It's the probing and listening approach, and it seems to be sorely lacking in American industry. Actually asking questions like, What kind of growth plans do you have?"
Crawford also solicits an evaluation of Brook: What could the company be doing better? "We'll ask, 'What could we be doing differently to help you?' We ask it that way, instead of asking, 'Are we doing well?' or something where they could give a yes or no answer -- and the answers we get are fascinating. People will let us know they want different kinds of furniture offered. Or they'll ask us why we offer two-day delivery and not one-day, and we'll be able to educate them on why we make certain trade-offs." The question also becomes a way of gauging how the services and offerings of competitors are influencing the expectations of Brook's customers.
Debrief immediately, with a critique. "We'll stand around outside or go to the car, and we'll talk first about how we did. Sometimes the meeting was a disaster. And we'll figure out what we might have done differently; I hate to talk about what didn't work. I talk about opportunity here. What could be done better. And if the others are too careful about telling me what I did wrong, I'll come out and tell them my comments were too long, that I talk about listening but I wasn't listening."
Listen, too, to your people. Talking with staff, especially staff in the field, is another forum for conducting industry research. And dedicating blocks of time -- four hours per contact, minimum -- affords a unique opportunity for feedback and candid information. "The accuracy of what you see and what you feel will be far greater in person," says Crawford. "People on the phone will be more guarded; people in groups are going to be restrained and more careful. But if I'm moving in the field and we're driving from one call to another for hours at a time, I know that in the course of the day I'll know more about what they're feeling."* * *
Even if it's hard to argue with his results -- lower turnover and better productivity from his people, and a better market sense for himself -- Bob Crawford's passion for travel surpasses that of most CEOs. More common is the sentiment of Jimmy Calano, CEO of CareerTrack, a $65-million company that employs 400 people and puts on 6,000 half-day to two-day skill-training seminars a year internationally: "My number one piece of advice about travel? Don't go."
While conceding his bias and contending that much networking and deal making can be done via phone, voice mail, fax, and overnight mail, Calano is not Crawford's strategic alter ego. He agrees there are irrefutable benefits to being "out there." He spends road time meeting with major partners -- for example, the Tom Peters Group, whose seminars CareerTrack manages -- or going to sit in the audience of a CareerTrack program every few months to do quality control, or attending a trade conference to look for new ideas.
Part of the benefit is purely emotional: "We all want to connect with people," admits Calano. "And we justify it and rationalize it because we're human." The other part is more pragmatic: a personal presence leaves a bigger impression. "Ask executives why they ultimately make many of their decisions," says Calano, "and in the end they'll say it wasn't the facts, it was how they felt about it. Emotion drives decisions probably more than anything."
One thing Calano is evangelical about is that the key to travel is to travel smart. Calano may be the most organized person in the universe, so that when he takes a trip -- generally once or twice a month, for two to four days at a time -- no moment or opportunity is wasted. Here's what he does to make his time work for him.
Assess the necessity of the trip. "If I'm going to a seminar or a conference, in my mind I'm looking for a $10,000 idea per day, whether it's in cost savings or revenue generation," says Calano. "If I'm making a sales presentation, the piece of business has to produce $100,000 or more. I know the value of my time -- every year I try to calculate that value, because it helps me evaluate how I spend it."
And he explicitly will ask if a visit is necessary. "I'll say, 'I'm willing to make this trip, but is it the best use of your time? Do you have two or three hours to give me if I come?' "
Bring people who can help you or whom you can help. "If I'm going to a convention or a meeting, I try to figure out who stands to learn the most by monitoring or being a party to the event or just trailing along for the ride. Or I'll bring someone who can add the most value to the sales call or presentation or whatever the purpose of the trip is. That could be a tech specialist, or it could be a CareerTrack veteran."
See if you can leverage the trip. Calano keeps a rough list of people in his Rolodex, organized by the city they're in, so that he can quickly check if there's someone he ought to visit while he's in the area.
Organize pretravel details. Calano's assistant developed a mini-itinerary that she types up and staples to his plane-ticket jacket; included are his flight numbers and times, hotel and airport-transportation information, and notes about whether his mail and newspapers are being picked up at his home. "I live and die by that. It's just a little trick that's worked like a charm; I can find all my vital information very quickly." He also makes sure he has fax numbers for everywhere he'll be, so he can let people know how to reach him.
Pack smart. Calano has a list of all the items he could possibly need on a business trip taped to his closet door, to use as a checklist when he's packing. "I spend one to two hours packing, even for a three-day trip. The reason is that I mentally go through the trip, not quite every hour, but morning, afternoon, and evening, thinking about whom I'm going to be with. And my list: this sounds compulsive and fanatic, but I was so tired of having to go down to the gift shop at 6 o'clock in the morning, unshaven and having to buy a razor."
Leave the day before. Calano has a clear preference for arriving the evening before a meeting. "It reduces my stress level and makes me fresher; I'm not excited about waking up at 4 in the morning, racing to the airport, going through that hassle, and showing up disheveled and exhausted, with my system out of whack. Maybe it's a luxury I give myself as a CEO that some people with tighter schedules simply can't afford. I can, and I choose to."
He also tries to miss rush hours. "With some planning I generally can avoid it at both ends," he says.
Really use the time in transit. Calano is not the most social creature when he's on a plane. "Travel time is some of my most productive time," he swears. "I consider plane time sacred; my productivity in the air outstrips office productivity by a ratio of three to one. When I sit down on a plane, I don't even acknowledge the people on either side of me. If they say something to me, I don't even respond. I'm not wild about traveling, but I tend to be more relaxed than I am at home, because on the road you can sort of get yourself to another dimension. You remove yourself from chaos."
Don't waste time at your destination. "In the hotel, I don't even tempt myself to turn on the TV. You find yourself willing to watch shows you never watch at home. Also, just as when I'm on the plane, some of the best thinking I do is when I'm holed up at the hotel. I can point to some of the profit centers at this company and say, 'OK, that was from New York,' and, 'That was from a trip to Boston.' "
Maintain your daily habits. "I like getting daily numbers, a hard copy of the sales from the previous day," says Calano. "It's generally faxed to me at 6 a.m., when I'm at home -- kind of a wake-up call every morning. [CareerTrack is a 24-hour operation.] If I'm out of town, our data-processing people always know what number to fax to. It's like clockwork. The big issue here is that it enables me to keep my routine going." What about security, having sales numbers come across a public fax machine? Calano says he's not worried. "Nobody would really understand what the numbers mean."
Plan your agenda, then fax a copy to your host. This step is critical, believes Calano. "I do this always, exclamation point," he says. "An agenda gives you power. It enables you to control the issues of the meeting, the flow of those issues, and the order in which they're addressed." The best part of having an agenda, he says, is that most people don't expect it. "My experience is that most meetings happen on a very loose basis. People basically know the issue they're going to talk over, but they really haven't taken the time to break it down. What are the different aspects we want to talk about? What are the selling points I want to make?"
To prepare, Calano will pull half a dozen people into his office -- people who will be affected by the outcome of the meeting -- for a 15-minute brainstorming session. "What are your issues?" he'll ask them. "They feel their interests are being represented, and I end up better prepared. Even if you get only one item out of each person, boy, you end up with a pretty tight agenda." He faxes a copy of the list to the person he'll be with -- sometimes not until the day of the meeting, he admits, but it's still better than handing it over at the beginning of the session. "When you have that agenda, it makes you look smart, it makes you look well prepared, and it conveys that you're very serious," he attests. "It's a simple way to set yourself apart." The final benefit? "You know when the meeting is over. Once you've covered the last issue, that's it."
Take notes. "I generally take more notes than other people," Calano says. Partly, it's to be able to relate ideas back to other people. Mostly, though, "I take notes just to stay focused on the discussion, and I never, ever read them later. When I write it down it registers in my brain."
Make your phone calls to the office efficient. Calano talks to his assistant twice a day at planned times. "I used to not plan the specific times, and that was really frustrating when I missed her. This way she's ready, she's expecting the call, and I save a lot of time." He's also a firm believer in not calling more often: "You're on the road presumably to get something done that you can't get done in the office. You should focus on that."
Allow time for reentry. "I try to give myself two hours to regroup when I get back. I always come back with a stack of completed work, a stack of uncompleted work, receipts, and notes and memos -- 10 or 15 pages of them. If I schedule myself too tight and I wait, it gets cold and I'll forget things. It's great to have that discipline; there are always going to be things waiting for you, but you leverage the benefit of the trip if you allow yourself time to debrief yourself and get everything properly routed and organized."
MEANWHILE, BACK AT HEADQUARTERS . . .
Make sure that what you do on the road pays off back home
Bruce McIndoe is another true believer in the imperative for being out with the customer. "The payoff is the survival of the company," he says adamantly. "If I'm sitting in here and I lose the pulse of the market, God knows where we'll wander off to."
One of the key problems for anyone out collecting information is how to share it with others back home and get a return on all that time out. McIndoe, 34, is founder and CEO of Communications & Systems Specialists Inc. (CSSI), a $5-million, 55-employee Inc. 500 software developer that does work primarily for the Department of Defense and NASA. He's also the primary salesman for the Columbia, Md., company. He spends 80% of his time out of the office -- half of it selling, half visiting customers and other trade people. To transmit what he and others have heard in their travels, especially regarding sales leads, CSSI uses a simple but standardized procedure that keeps ideas from falling through the cracks.
All possible leads -- from follow-up with a current customer, to conversations with potential customers bidding out contracts, to rumors floating in the trade press -- are noted on a new-opportunity submission form, a one-page sheet filled out by hand. It includes the contact's name and phone number, the estimated value of the potential contract, its priority status, and a brief project description.
McIndoe says the form forces him to articulate the nuances of what he's heard while ideas are still fresh in his mind. "A lot of times customers and I have brainstormed on their particular problem -- what their key risk factors are, or the trade-offs," he says. "Keeping track of those and letting other people know about them is helpful not only in identifying the opportunity but also in writing a proposal, because we know what the hot buttons are, what this guy is thinking about."
At a weekly "opportunity-review meeting," managers and engineers update one another on the status of past ideas. The regular forum is also used to discuss issues McIndoe has uncovered while traveling, and to keep follow-up more rigorous.