It was my third year at IBM, and having completed the mandatory eighteen months of sales training and five weeks of public utilities school, I became the junior member of the team who sold computers to one of the largest public utilities in the country, American Electric Power.
The situation was major, and I was in over my head. We were trying to close a deal to replace two incompatible data centers with a new one to be built in Canton, Ohio. One data center, already in Canton, ran the systems that handled all of the commercial functions for the company. The second data center was in New York and handled all of the engineering, power management and buying and selling of power on the national grid. Every hour of computer downtime would cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Included in the proposal, we were to build a brand new facility, provide water cooling, air conditioning, and security, along with converting over 20,000 commercial programs and 30,000 engineering programs to run on the incompatible, new, third operating system. The new center had to come up on time, with overlapped processing to assure no missed billing, no missed customer start-ups, and heaven forbid, no downtime of trading on the power grid. This $30 million project was to be led by me, the junior partner, and my new teammate and systems engineer, who came from one of our existing customers just a few months earlier.
Such was the scene when the Executive Vice President, his first name was Tony, was coming to Canton for our first meeting to visit the proposed site, review the proposal and make a decision. I was assigned to pick him up and arrange for his entire experience in the Canton Area. I did my homework, knew about his background and management style, what kind of food he liked and the fact that he normally played squash every morning. Well… having been a squash player along with running track in college, I felt right at home inviting him to my club for a match the morning before the big presentation.
On the ride from the airport on the first evening, I went through all the steps of establishing business rapport. We talked about the two centers, the challenges of their having been remote and not being compatible with each other. We discussed his goals for the consolidation and his feelings about his partnership with IBM. We had dinner, and when the discussion turned to personal rapport items, I made sure to bring up squash. We talked all about the challenges of the sport, the superior conditioning required as compared to racket ball, the equipment, and the advantages of hard balls versus soft balls. As it turned out, he had brought his gear hoping to find a club in the area, and he happily accepted my invitation to play.
We entered the club, and I allowed him to take it all in, including the fact that I was well known within the club. Knowing that he played every day, whereas I played only on Saturdays, I knew it was important to give him my best match so that he had a good time. And a good time it was. We played three games, and the ebb and flow was intense. Offense, defense, positioning, diving, hustling… I gave it all I had. Coming to the third game, we were tied at one game each and 13 to 14 on the final game to 15. I can tell you that it took everything I had. While he was about my father’s age, he was fit, agile, and accurate. He had both power and finesse, and worse for me; he knew court management far better than I did. My only advantage was youth and determination, and on the final point, I managed to eke out a win with a diving, sliding save of his drop shot in the front backhand corner. Whew! We hugged and slapped hands like old buds, leaving nothing more to be given on the court.
Two hours later, we had showered, dressed, had breakfast, and were in the throes of the biggest IBM sales meeting not only of my career, but for most of the IBMers in attendance. The Vice President of Information Systems who reported to Tony kicked off the meeting, introduced the senior managers of both companies, and then said,
“Before we begin, I just want point out that Eric Richardson had dinner and then played squash with our EVP this morning.” I was beaming. That was a “power rapport” privilege that few in the entire branch office had ever shared with that level executive.
He continued, “Further, I want to say that our company would never consider a long term business relationship with a company whose representative would be so inconsiderate as to invite our EVP to play squash at his club, and then proceed to beat him in front of an audience.
My heart stopped. My partner, his boss, our IBM Branch Manager, our entire team, and the customer’s entire team all turned to look at me, mouths agape. I wanted to crawl underneath the carpet. The moment lasted for what seemed like hours.
As my career flashed in front of my eyes, I heard the VP start laughing. And then his team started laughing, all pointing at me. The EVP, Tony, came over, gave me a hug and presented me with his racquet as a gift, and said, “GOTCHA! Thanks for a wonderful time. Let’s get this contract signed.”
The hair on my neck is rising just recounting this story on paper, but I can tell you what I learned that day. Nothing matters, including age, experience, money, status or anything else other than genuinely caring about your customer. Nothing. And they will love you for it.
– Eric Richardson, CEO – Growth Development Associates
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