Searching for solutions Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2009

Tim Guertin has three questions he continuously asks his employees to answer to ensure that Varian Medical Systems Inc. continues growing.

“Obviously, growth comes from people wanting to buy your products in ever greater numbers, so the first question you have to ask yourself is, ‘Why would they do that, and how do you make them do that more?’” he says.

Next, he asks how to make the products more efficient and make people happier using them. Lastly, he asks how Varian can get more people who aren’t customers to buy its products, which are medical devices and software used to treat cancer patients.

If you can find the answers to those three questions, then it’s likely that success will follow.

“Do those three things well, I think you’ll grow,” says Guertin, president and CEO of Varian.

He has learned that in order to answer these questions effectively, he and his employees have to focus on their customers, be open to criticism and also be inspirational. As a result of doing these things, the business has grown from $1.6 billion in fiscal 2006 to $2.1 billion in fiscal 2008.

Focus on customers

When Guertin first started in the business, one of his managers made him go to a clinic for two days to watch patients be treated. It helped him better see what the problems were and what the customers liked and disliked.

“You should spend a lot of time talking to customers and having people in your organization talking to customers,” Guertin says. “You need to understand your customers viscerally and spend enough time with them [so] that you do.”

You have to be strategic about it though and make sure you’re spending that valuable time with different demographics.

“You watch new users and see how long it takes them to learn something,” he says. “You talk to the people who have to educate customers and ask them how it’s going and what things are the hardest for the customers to learn. You talk to experienced users and get their opinion.”

The problem with expert users is that they know so much that they often get on tangents, and you don’t learn what you really wanted to learn. Because of this, you have to also hit your intermediate users, who use the product but infrequently. These users may know how to do something but sometimes forget between usages.

“Intermediates represent the bulk of customers, and they’re the most easily frustrated,” Guertin says. “You have to talk to them and figure out how to design your products such that those people stay happy.”

When you talk to customers, open up the meeting by letting them talk. Guertin says that if he’s having a daylong meeting with a customer, he lets them talk for an hour before his first PowerPoint slide even comes up.

“You have to know where they’re coming from,” Guertin says. “Most people go into a conversation knowing where they’re coming from and not knowing where the other person is coming from.”

While listening entails using your ears, it also involves observations. For example, if Guertin sees a glimmer of distaste come across somebody’s face, he’ll ask what bothered him or her.

“There’s a little bit of detective work involved,” he says. “If you’re a detective and if you’re questioning a suspect, you can’t just have a planned interview. You have to follow things up.”

You also should reach out to people who aren’t your customers.

“You have to go talk to the people who aren’t interested in your product, and you try to figure out why and what’s going on in their head,” he says.

It may be your product or it may simply be the way you advertise your product, but you’re not going to know unless you ask them.

“You have to teach your sales force to do this,” Guertin says. “The sales force’s job isn’t just to talk. It’s to talk to people who don’t want to buy the product. It’s actually to talk to cold prospects and learn from that.”

Throughout all of these tactics, remember that you have to be somebody your team can emulate.

“You have to demonstrate the behavior yourself because people will watch the boss,” he says. “If I go into a room and spend all my time telling customers instead of listening to them, I’m not modeling that behavior.”

Be open to criticism

The second way you’re going to answer those three questions is to talk to the critics within your organization and customer base.

“Sometimes the best people to talk to you are your critics, which is no fun to do,” Guertin says. “You go talk to them and listen to what they have to say, and then you walk away feeling like you should kill yourself, but the next day you may have a better idea of how to make things better.”

For example, one of Varian’s customers decided to buy a different product offering, so Guertin called the customer and asked an honest question.

“I said, ‘I know we lost, but will you have dinner with me, and let’s talk about it?’” he says. “’I’m not here to change your mind. I just want to talk about where we went wrong. It’s my job to build a better Varian — can you tell me how to do it?’”

The customer said OK, so the two went to dinner, and Guertin was shocked when it lasted four hours.

“I spent dinner going, ‘OK, so we did this wrong. Good. What else?’” he says. “My job was to say, ‘What else?’ and extract a whole list from him.”

Guertin then wrote a letter to his team about what he had learned so they could fix themselves instead of being mad. It’s important that when you get feedback, you recognize what to listen to, so Guertin goes back to his three questions.

“If those are the goals, then when you get feedback, you sort of match them up against those goals,” he says. “If someone says your service organization screwed up, then you get details about how they screwed up, and then you ask yourself, ‘OK, how is this thing working against us in answering one of those three questions?’”

In addition to taking criticism from your customers, you also need to seek out the internal critics.

“In a lot of companies, the people who tell you all the ways in which something will fail are not welcome,” he says. “But you need to have those people.”

Guertin likes to seek out one particular person to run his ideas by.

“He’s one of those people who can see every possible and conceivable way it can fail,” he says. “If I can walk into his office and discuss an idea and survive the failure discussion, and at the end of it, he’s starting to smile and look interested, I know we’ve got something.”

It’s not easy to welcome criticism, but it’s something you have to train yourself to do. Guertin suggests an exercise that an organizational development person showed him years ago to help set aside your defensiveness. That person told him to take a group of employees into a room and ask them to finish the statement, “My job would be better if _____.” Then write down all the things they say, but you can’t change or argue with anything they say. When you’re all done, you may have 60 or 70 things. Ask people to vote by secret ballot for the top five, and then you’ll see where the consensus is for problems.

“Since you’re the boss, if you don’t react defensively, and if you just write it down, the longer the meeting goes on, the more you’ll get things that are crucially important to them and really are bugging them,” he says.

Be inspirational

Guertin recently heard a quote from Bob Noyce, one of the co-founders of Intel Corp., who said, “Don’t be encumbered by history. Go off and do something wonderful.”

You have to keep looking beyond what your reality is to pull in people who don’t use your products yet.

“If you just pay attention to history, you’ve been misled about what the future should be,” he says. “Don’t automate the cow paths. Don’t look at the cow paths and decide where the roads ought to be. If you think originally about what customers want, you can sometimes see that an evolutionary step is the wrong step. You need to rethink what people do in order to imagine a new solution.”

Guertin points out the creation of the iPod as an example.

“Sony should have thought of the iPod,” he says. “They made disk drives, they made everything necessary to do it, but they missed it because they were encumbered by their own history. That’s one thing you don’t want to do.”

When you’re thinking revolutionary, your products will inspire people and get them excited. For example, the typical house has a kitchen, living room, dining room, bathrooms, bedrooms and a garage.

“A person who is not a designer can pretty much draw a house, but a great architect can draw a house that’s an inspiration to the person who lives in it every day,” Guertin says.

He points out Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater as an example.

“The houses of that day compared to Frank Lloyd Wright, you can see that he went to a place nobody had ever gone before,” he says. “That’s what great designers do.”

But often when you look at your own abilities, you realize that your skills are more preschool-like rather than Picasso-like.

“You have to hire people, who by their life experience, have learned how to do that,” Guertin says. “... You have to have those people in your organization.”

To get those people into your organization, you have to spark their passion in the interview process by asking what they’ve most enjoyed in their career. Their response doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you drill down by asking them to tell you more and to explain it in great details. You’re looking at what that answer stirs up inside of them.

“If it was, in truth, something that they really enjoyed and something that they learned a lot from, they’ll be able to tell me a tremendous amount about it, and the more they talk, the [more] enthusiastic they would be,” he says. “By the depth of knowledge they display and the enthusiasm that they show, I can tell what kind of person they are.”

If you can find that passion in someone, you know they’ll also find a passion for your business and products and work to make both more inspirational.

“People put on an interview face, but frankly, most people’s interview faces aren’t that good,” he says. “Passionate people don’t put on that face. … They show love and affection for doing a good job. If someone doesn’t show me love and affection and a good job in an interview, they probably won’t show it to me in the job.”

How to reach: Varian Medical Systems Inc.,