Taking time Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2009

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.

Study customer responses. We try to look for the trends. You try to gather as much as you can about what people are saying about it. What are the, ‘Yeah, buts,’ if you will. ‘Yeah, I like their technology, but … ’ — pick that up, and then how do you address that? Maybe there’s something we’ve got to work on with technology to take care of that.

You can’t get yourself to where you think, ‘I know I’ve got a good product, if only they would listen to me and if only they would buy it’ because you’re not doing something right if you’re doing that.

Give employees feedback on customer meetings. I have an ‘all-hands’ meeting once per month with all employees to communicate where I have been and what I heard from customers that is important. This gives all employees a sense of what is important to specific customers as well as allowing me to reinforce again and again that quality and delivery and cost are the basics of any business.

I use the specific business relationship to reiterate how the customer sees our performance and what challenges we need to accept to keep the customer believing that we are the best.

This also works to let employees know when the customer thinks they are the best and motivates them to achieve even higher results. Everyone likes to be associated with a winning team.

Encourage employees to build solid relationships with their customers. You’ve got to do it throughout the whole organization. Our culture is you’ve got to know your customer, because most of what we have is a relatively new technology. Having them read about it on a Web site or in a magazine is not going to cut it.

You have to go talk to them and you have to show them all the different things the technology is capable of. Then you see if they have that glimmer in their eye that, ‘I can use that.’

Marketing is a science of creating the need for the sale. People don’t know they need to buy something until they get told what it is and they get shown how to use it.

How to reach: Maxwell Technologies Inc., (858) 503-3300 or www.maxwell.com