Taking time

Being the best and earning a reputation for being so sounds simple, says David Schramm.

In his business — developing and manufacturing energy storage and power delivery solutions — it’s a matter of having the best technology. But understanding how to get to that point is a little more involved.

“The very first thing you have to do is you have to listen,” says Schramm, president and CEO of Maxwell Technologies Inc., which has 350 employees worldwide and posted revenue of $82.2 million, up from $57 million in 2007. “You listen to the customers first. What are they telling you? You then take a look at that market data and you extrapolate out what are the real trends there.”

Listening means having face-to-face contact with your customers and understanding who they are and what they need. Then you must communicate that information to your employees.

Smart Business spoke with Schramm about how to maintain strong customer contact to help both your clients and your company.

Have face-to-face contact with customers. It’s a contact sport. For instance, I’m catching a plane Sunday and I’m going to be talking to six of our major customers in Europe.

E-mails and newsletters are nice; I go talk to them face to face.

It is very important that the CEO meets no less than twice per year with the CEO of the major customers to determine what is really important to them. The resulting benefit of doing this is that the relationship can be leveraged to learn more about future programs, as well as to have direct access to the customer’s CEO.

It is much easier to call someone that you have met in person to discuss sensitive issues than reading a formal letter detailing the same. An added benefit is that the customer CEO becomes a part of your network, and this can be further leveraged with future customers who may already have a relationship with the customer CEO.

I always have these meetings start with my customer manager arranging a session with his peers at the customer and with me and the customer CEO. This reinforces to my customer manager, as well as to the customer’s managers, that the CEOs have a relationship.

If possible, I will arrange a private dinner to help grow the relationship with my customer CEO.

Listen to your customers’ needs. You get to know them a little bit. I’ll listen and see what I can pick up from them. What is their culture? What is important to them? What are they looking for? Where are they trying to grow? What is the biggest problem they have that I think I can solve?

If I can be a solving agent for them, then we have a relationship.

They will tell you what they’re looking for. They always want something that is smaller, faster and costs less. It’s just a question of how small and how fast do they really have to have it, and are they asking for something that violates laws of physics and laws of chemistry. If they are, then you have to help reshape what they’re asking for.

You’ve got to manage expectations. You have to talk to them and listen to what they’re trying to get accomplished because sometimes what they’re telling you they want and what it is that’s driving them could be two different things.

Maybe we can approach getting them where they really want to get to a different way.