Aldo Zini builds relationships at Aethon Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2009

Aldo Zini once spent several weeks sitting in a pharmacy.

It may not be the fast-paced, high-tech task you’d expect for the president and CEO of Aethon, a developer of robots that attach to hospital carts and deliver anything from linens to lab specimens. But Zini was there to connect with potential customers.

“Too often, companies come up with neat ideas or neat products but they haven’t thought through how you actually solve a problem,” Zini says. “You have to do an analysis around what benefit your product could bring.”

That interaction-based analysis can build a base for success, and Aethon is proof. On average, the 75-employee company has doubled its revenue annually since 2005.

Smart Business spoke with Zini about building relationships with potential customers.

Q. Initially, how do you get to know customers?

First and foremost, you want to understand their operation. You want to understand how they currently do what you want to help them with. Is what’s important to them that things get delivered within a certain time, or is the quantity of what’s delivered more important? How do they interact with the receiver?

You’ve got to talk to people. You’ve got to go visit the industry. At a previous company where we developed a pharmacy robot, I was in charge of selling that first robot. I went to a local hospital and I asked them if I could spend a couple weeks just sitting in their pharmacy and observing what they do. I’d talk to people; I’d watch what they do.

You have to listen to more than just one person. There are a lot of things that are common among [companies] but there are also differences. The mistake I’ve seen people make is they’ll talk to somebody who’s very credible, but they draw all their conclusions from that one interview. Then they try to apply it in other places and it doesn’t work. Don’t just take the word of one person.

Once you understand how they do it, then you can start saying, ‘Now, how about we do it this way or that way?’ You start exploring alternatives.

If you go in and try to tell them, ‘Here’s what we want you to do, and here’s how you do it,’ they’re going to say, ‘Well, they don’t even really know what I need from them. How can you come in here and start telling me what to do?’

So you’ve really got to develop that relationship and understand what they do. And then you can start talking to them about a new technology.

Q. How do you know if your product will benefit them?

You have to be sales-driven, not engineering-driven. When you have that mindset, you develop a product around what the customer wants, not what the engineers want to do. We have to listen to the customer. You’ve got to get in their shoes, and you’ve got to feel their pain.

You have to find customers who like to be early adopters of something new. There are people that say, ‘Look, I don’t want to be the first one to buy your new gizmo.’ They are more risk-adverse. And there are some customers that like to be the first. They say, ‘I want to be a trendsetter. I want to try new things.’

Sometimes you just ask and then other times you look at their history. For instance, we look for people that have implemented new technology. You can do some research and you say, ‘Oh, they were the first to implement this.’

Good salespeople are people that first listen. You want to go in, and you want to listen. You want to ask questions.

In fact, on your first sales call, we train people to never even talk about the product. Your first sales call should be just to go in and ask questions and see if they’re a good fit for the product. There’s a lot of questions we have to ask, like do they have the money, first of all. Do they like technology? Have they used technology in the past? And then you go back and start talking about our solution and our product.

Q. How can you develop that relationship to build their trust?

You develop trust early on when you listen to them. When people are willing to just listen to you, you’re willing to share more and open up. You’ve probably met people who talk more than they listen; it kind of turns you off. You don’t want to do that.

One way to [be a better listener] is just to prepare well. When you first meet with people, do your homework and have good questions. You have to go in with some knowledge. They are more open when you show them that you’ve done some research.

If you go to [someone] and you start asking dumb questions, they will turn you off and then you’re done. So first, try to do a lot of research. Understand the environment you’re going into a little bit. Have some good questions and then listen to what they say.

HOW TO REACH: Aethon, (412) 322-2975 or