Pursuing a Customer

Ted Levitt, who taught at Harvard Business School until he was 81, was the first to define corporate purpose: “The purpose of a business,” he said is “to create and keep a customer.” It all starts with a customer. Not only with the sale, but as mentors and advisors in knowing how to serve them well.

For example, my dad had started as a welder, and on the side, started making ornamental iron railings for neighbors. One day, he saw a pick-up truck heading into a construction site, so he followed the truck, thinking if there were homes being built, they probably needed iron railings. The guy who got out of the truck was a man named Ed Ryan, and who was building his first housing development in Pittsburgh. That was the beginning of Ryan Homes and the beginning of my Dad’s business.

As Ryan Homes grew, my Dad’s business grew, and I worked in the business as a welder and installer every weekend and summer. Along the way, we expanded into wood railings and outdoor railings in all sorts of designs, because that’s what customers were asking for. Fortunately we listened to them. It wasn’t a matter of coming up with something we hoped they would buy. It was making what they wanted.

The reason I become so interested in marketing was what I found to be a rather hard road getting people to buy what I was selling. It wasn’t through any grand plan that I originally got into marketing, but through necessity. In 1968, business wasn’t so good in Pittsburgh for my dad’s business. So, a week after I graduated from high school, the summer before I went to college, my dad gave me the keys to a Country Squire station wagon, a AAA map showing me the way to Washington DC and two samples of railings. He said he’d heard there was a lot of building going on in Washington DC and in a new town called Columbia Maryland, and I should try to sell some railings down there.

To give you some idea of how easy it is to do things the hard way, here are three actual examples of just how unprofessional you can be and still muddle through: three experiences in the first week on the job. The first was actually my first day in Washington. I’d made an appointment with the vice president of a construction company I’d read about, who was building a new housing development in Columbia. He said he would talk to me and tell me where there was building going on in the area. I stayed at the Enchanted Forest Motel on my first night, which was $11 a night or $50 for the week.

I arrived at my appointment early. Good. I knew I was a bit nervous, but I didn’t quite realize just how nervous I was. His secretary ushered me into his office. He had the biggest desk I’d ever seen, covered with papers, plans, proposals and a large cup of coffee perched in the middle of it all. He was on the phone and when he hung up, he swiveled his chair around, and I reached over to shake his hand. Only, before I got to his hand, I hit that cup of coffee. It didn’t tip over. It flew. It hit him about chest high, bounced off and put a nice color range of very warm beige on pretty much everything in sight. I never knew how much coverage you could get out of 12 ounces of coffee. But I learned that morning.

I spent the rest of that day making calls from a phone booth to set up meetings. At the time, there weren’t any cell phones. I finally got one, and the next morning, got on the beltway, a road that runs around the Washington. Although I now know that road pretty well, and it’s pretty obvious when you’re going in the wrong direction, it took me about 30 miles to figure it out. So, I pulled off the beltway and into a gas station. Now, even though it was 9:00 in the morning, it was hot, so I’d taken off my shoes, as I often did while driving. I was intending to get out of the car, so I opened the door, found my shoes and put them on the tarmac. But, just as I was getting out of the car, the attendant (in those days there were attendants) came around the front of the car and asked if he could help me. Those were the good old days. He gave me directions and I was back on the beltway for 20 miles, nearly to where I’d just been.

Now I’m already an hour late for the appointment, with no cell phone, and you guessed it… no shoes. I’m not sure you’ve ever seen a construction site before there are houses and streets. Basically a dirt road and a construction trailer. My choices were: get to a phone and cancel. Go back and get the shoes and be 2 hours late. Or, make the appointment. So, my first sales call was in my stocking feet. Needless to say, I didn’t close that sale. At least on that day.

I finally get a few appointments, make some calls and things are looking good. In fact, there’s one construction site that’s about 2 miles from the Enchanted Forest Motel, basically on my way to wherever I’m going every morning. Construction sites start early in the summer, and I happened to know that this guy got to work at 6:00. So just about every other morning, I stop in to see if he’s ready to buy yet. I still didn’t know the difference between selling and pestering. I actually thought I was making headway.

After about a week or so, my Dad decides he’s going to come down to see how things are going. He wants to meet some of the people I’ve been calling on. So, I pick him up at the Baltimore airport, and our first stop is this guy I’ve seen now about 3 times in that week. We pull up and there he is, standing on the steps of this trailer. I can’t say he was happy to see me, but when he saw my dad getting out of the car, he kept his cool. My dad introduces himself and says he just wanted to meet some of the people I’d been telling him about. Well, this guy looks at my Dad and he says, “you seem like a reasonable guy Mr. Droz, so maybe you can help me communicate to your son. I’m not buying your @#!&*%-ing product. I’ve told him I’m not buying his @#!&*%-ing product all week, but he keeps coming back. Could you please tell him I’m not buying your @#!&*%-ing product.”

And that was the week that was.