After many decades of being a business owner and salesman, I have never, ever changed my Golden Rule of Selling:  Know Your Customer.

Customers are the reason we open our doors every day, and keep the machines humming all night long.  Customers determine what we eat, where we live, whether we stay in business.  We can keep our factories and offices going until we run out of money, but unless we have customers to sell to, we have no purpose.

Any Google search can tell you all you need to know about a company you want to sell to—in fact, more than you need to know. But that doesn't mean you know your customer because the company isn’t your customer.  There’s a person in that company who makes decisions about how the company is going to spend money, and who will get their business.  That’s your customer.

When I was a young salesman, I developed the Mackay 66, a 66-question customer profile that includes absolutely no information about the envelopes a company buys, but rather focuses on the person who does the buying.  What are they like as human beings?  What are they proud of accomplishing? What’s their life like outside the office?  How do they want to be seen by others? In other words, what makes them tick?

Then, we guard this information with our lives, being very sensitive to how we use it and who has access.  This is not office gossip.  (You can download the Mackay 66 here.)

Having an established relationship with a real live person is the best way to avoid being undercut on prices. And it's the only way to keep selling during rough patches in the economy. In his book Selling in Tough Times, Tom Hopkins writes, “If you have provided an exceptional level of service to your clients, there’s a wonderful side benefit.  During tough times you will likely be lower on their list of services to reduce or eliminate than another company that hasn’t provided your level of extraordinary service.”

Of course, you can only provide that extraordinary service to another human being. Hopkins makes five points about cementing that person-to-person relationship, all of which bear remembering:

  • Loyalty is built over time and by giving consistent attention to your clients.
  • End every client meeting with these words: “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
  • Have multiple ideas for building client loyalty through phone calls, e-mail, and postal mail.
  • Know how to approach a neglected client to regain their trust and keep their business.
  • Begin a study of other companies that have loyal clients and incorporate some of their strategies into your business.

Hopkins’ final bit of advice is critically important. “During challenging times, it’s more important than ever to dedicate yourself to training, practicing, and improving everything you do,” he writes.

Mackay’s Moral:  Knowing your customer doesn't just mean knowing their company's goals. It means really knowing who they are, one human being to another.