I want to tell you a story about one of my best customers, Gene. As a young account rep at Microsoft, I was tasked with managing the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). For some context: At that time USDA had 29 sub-agencies, over 100,000 employees, and an IT budget of well over $1.5B. The organization, the mission, and the politics of the agency were so complex that I didn’t even know where to start. It turns out that even in a place as complex as USDA, there are a surprisingly limited number of people who actually have most of the influence and make a majority of the decisions.
Like most people I suppose, I looked at the organizational chart and set a meeting with the Chief Information Officer for all of USDA. We had a nice meeting… she was very friendly and appreciative to hear what Microsoft had to say, unexpectedly for me, she asked me a lot more questions about what was happening within USDA then I was able to ask of her. Like most executives, she wanted to know what was happening in the field and she recognized that she only received very filtered information. All and all, it was a great meeting that got me nowhere.
I quickly realized that the org chart and the real power structure within an organization were not the same thing. Eventually, I found my way to Gene. He was located in Davis, California – about as far away from the DC headquarters as you could get. He worked in a small regional office and had a relatively unassuming title. There is a long and very interesting story about how I found Gene that I am happy to share in person if you’d like to know. Turns out Gene started at USDA when he was 17 years old and had been there for more than 40 years. He was someone who not only believed in the mission of USDA but had lived it most of his life.
In my first meeting with Gene, I passionately sold the value of Microsoft Software with all the features and benefits. He was patient, asked a few questions, and politely allowed me to finish my presentation, and then asked me to lunch. At lunch, he explained to me that he didn’t really care about all the features or benefits, what he cared about was how our software could impact the mission of USDA. He wanted to know if I even knew the mission of USDA. Without elaborating too much, he made it pretty clear that he saw vendors every week and all of them spent too much time talking about their product instead of talking about how they could improve USDA. He woke up every day thinking about how to make USDA a better agency, and he wanted partners to achieve that goal.
Over the years Gene and I became good friends; he was a second father in many ways. We did a lot of business together and I am very proud of the positive impact we had on USDA. What I learned from Gene was that his organizational power wasn’t a byproduct of his position on the org chart, it was that for almost 50 years when he finally retired, he made a difference every day. So when he spoke or made a recommendation everyone listened. It was his fidelity to the organization that was the source of his influence and power. Secondly, he taught me that my job wasn’t to do product demos or send feature benefit spec sheets, it was to understand how my products could solve problems and improve his agency.
Now when I engage with our clients I look for people who care deeply about their company and their mission. I want to get to know those people because they are the ones who make it happen – they are the ones who I can partner with to make a difference because making a difference is what they do every day. We are a customer experience agency; our business is about making our client’s customers a little bit happier every day. To find the “Gene” in your account, learn everything you can about your client’s business and start making a difference.
Let’s go be great!