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Roman or Norman? It's the Difference Between Being Seen as a Partner or an Invader

Author: Steve Waterhouse

With all of the discussion in recent years about the importance of understanding our customer's needs, it's a valuable exercise to try to see ourselves as we might be perceived by our customers. For example, if a customer glances out the office window as we march from the visitor's lot towards their fortress, briefcases and laptops in hand and a pocket full of business cards, do they see friend or foe? Invader or partner?


On a recent speaking engagement in England, I found myself thinking seriously about two different groups of our sales ancestors. We've learned a great deal from both, but it became clear to me that each has a far different message to tell in terms of how to deal with customers.

Back in the year 1066, an aggressive organization calling themselves "Normans" invaded England from what is present-day France. They were led by a loud, authoritarian sales manager who came to be known as William the Conqueror. You'd probably recognize the type. His goal is winning - on his terms.

Now, Bill, as he was known to his closest friends, had done some fairly extensive market research and had determined that the English were good fighters, but he felt that he was better. So his approach was to be tougher than the other guy. He moved in, built forts, stole stuff and killed a lot of people. Needless to say the English didn't care too much for him, so he had to spend the rest of his life in combat to hold on to what he had taken.

Bill was convinced that this was the only way to conquer a country and his loyal troops saw it that way too. After all, what else could you do since the English never stopped fighting back? To this day, the remains of Norman forts are scattered throughout the countryside and every English child is taught the date of the battle of Hastings where Bill, the Conqueror, struck his first blow. A thousand years have passed, and the "customer" is still angry.

If Bill had done a little historical research, however, he might have found a better way. A thousand years earlier, another sales manager, this time a Roman named Jontheous, attempted to take the English market by storm. When the locals fought back vigorously, however, he concluded that a lifetime of fighting wasn't going to be good for team morale. Jontheous pulled out, returned to corporate headquarters in Rome, and about ten years later revisited England - without an army.

This time he brought with him architects, and priests, and teachers who moved in to the local villages and cities and befriended the citizens. They built water systems and sewage systems, and even forts and walls. But unlike the forts of the Normans, Jontheous's walls didn't separate the Romans from the locals. They surrounded the towns and offered protection to everyone. His people intermarried and learned the local language. They even added the local gods to Roman worship.

Jontheous and his followers lived in peace with the English for more than a hundred years and many cities they helped develop, such as London, still bear their mark. By about 125 AD the Romans were having trouble in other parts of the empire and were forced to downsize and close some branch offices, so they departed, leaving behind a rich legacy of contribution. Their successful working relationship with the English people meant that after the passage of some 2,000 years, the people of England still speak well of the Romans.

Today, however, even with all the emphasis on customer-focused selling, I still encounter far more Normans than Romans. I still see too many companies who perceive the client as something to be conquered rather than embraced. Just the other day, while waiting in the showroom of a local car dealer, I overheard a manager coaching a sales rep by saying, "There's a customer out there with bags of money. Go get it!"

Roman or Norman?

I've heard a vice president of a major software company tell a client that they had to be committed to their product 100% or they would be seen as enemies!

Roman or Norman?

On the other hand, I recently met with a sales manager whose sales force of 25 people spent a week analyzing the equipment needs of a paper mill and then delivered a thorough cost-saving analysis before the customer had ever committed to spending so much as a dime.

Roman or Norman?

Which "invader" would you want on your doorstep? The answer is self-evident, and it means that when you visit that potential working partner you should be asking some questions along the following lines.

"If you ran our newspaper, what would you change?"

"What products or services should we add to serve you better?"

"If we were the perfect supplier to you, what would we be doing differently?"

When I was with the Vortech Corporation, we had a major opportunity with IBM, but we were by far the smallest of the four companies competing for their business. During one of our meetings I asked the buyer what we would be able to do for them if we were the perfect supplier. She answered that they would like access to our computer tracking system so that they could maximize their planning. After a few calls to our plant, I found out that this would be easy to implement with a trusted client. Two weeks later we established the link and locked up the business for years.

Customer surveys represent another tool that far too many companies easily dismiss. Most distribute comment cards but few read them. J.W. Marriott, Sr. used to read every one and even wrote the responses and followed up with managers. His son still does it and the result is that Marriott led the way in providing business travelers needed power and phone outlets for their laptops. They also were among the first chains to offer lower cost alternatives through their Fairfield hotels, ensuring travelers a quality room that won't bust the budget.

Today, we all have the opportunity to learn a great deal about our clients and potential clients from newspapers, corporate reports and, of course, the Internet. Just the other day I received a valuable client lead, and before making the call to the contact, I spent 5 minutes online getting information. When I made my call, I knew the company's annual sales, details about their product, their growth curve for the last five years, their target market, and their perceived advantage in the marketplace. I was ready, and the client was pleased that I had taken the time to be prepared.

The world is changing rapidly, and within months we'll all be selling in the 21st century. We need to know everything we can about our customer. We need to combine that knowledge with effective plans for service, and we need to move faster than anyone else.

When our clients think of us, we want to be recognized as Romans not Normans. It's the difference between being difficult to work with or giving more than you take. Each of us can choose. We don't have to wait for word from Rome. Let's start tomorrow to dedicate ourselves and our organizations to 21st century selling. It's the way to a brighter future for each of us and our clients.

Stephen Waterhouse is Principal and Founder of Waterhouse Group. They specialize in helping companies increase their sales and profits. He can be reached at 1-800-57-LEARN or

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