“Shawn, I have to tell you, we all used to make fun of you driving around in that van. I mean, it is the internet—you don’t have to go out and talk to people. Everything’s done electronically.”
We’re sitting in a steak restaurant in Minneapolis. It’s cold and dark outside. November. I’m visiting a large health insurance company to discuss how they might use the software my company has created to manage large scale and complex employer benefit programs. As often happens on these trips, we’re having a nice dinner to help everyone get to know each other better.
This humorous observation comes from a guy who also started a benefits management software company. He had a head start on my company by several years. Based in California, his company also raised tens of millions of dollars in venture capital while our company bootstrapped to profitability for survival.
The van he was referring to was this used white Dodge Caravan with the phrase “powered by Benefitfocus” on the side. I bought it early on in the life of our company so we could drive around and visit our customers. Our simple sales strategy was to put our feet in the buildings of prospects and customers, give them a demo of our software, and get their feedback.
My new friend is now a vice president at an insurance company. The company he founded didn’t work out. The venture capital spent, the company was rolled into another company. He’s now working for someone else, evaluating whether or not to use my software.
Tens of millions in venture funding vs. bootstrapping to profitability. Internet sales and marketing vs. feet in buildings. The contrasts between our two companies and our strategies could not have been more stark.
The Power of Face to Face
My initial strategy of sales by feet in buildings (FIB) was born out of necessity. I really didn’t understand the health insurance industry, so I had no idea how to design software to manage it for employers and employees.
I needed to go out and sit with people who actually worked with these insurance benefits and ask them how they did what they did. I needed to reverse engineer their manual processes into our software by watching them do their daily tasks of enrolling employees, running reports, paying insurance bills, and reconciling all of that disparate data.
I also needed to understand the frustrations and motivations of these behind-the-scenes influencers. Who were they? How did they make decisions? What would motivate them to make the radical change of throwing out their paper forms, which they had relied on for decades, and adopt a web-based system?
My lack of industry knowledge combined with my lack of software sales experience created a situation where I either needed to go out in the field and figure it out myself, or blindly trust some expert to tell me what to do. I chose to just get in the car and go meet people.
I was completely terrified of doing this FIB dance. As an extreme introvert, I have never enjoyed new environments and have been afraid of meeting new people. And yet, in my mind at least, the very survival of our new business depended on me getting out of my comfort zone and meeting face to face with strangers.
I never fully overcame my apprehension around new settings and new people, but I quickly saw the accelerated learning that came with each encounter. I was able to soak up enormous amounts of detailed information in a one– or two–hour meeting. I was then able to take that back to the office and work all night with our engineering team to rapidly develop our software.
Over time our team came to love the simplicity of the FIB strategy. We could predict with increasing accuracy our sales outcomes based on the number of FIBs, we learned how many FIBs per type of prospective customer it took to sign a contract, and we learned that when a prospect blocked our sales people from doing a FIB, we had a real problem with that deal.
The first step in implementing the FIB strategy is to get yourself out and about. For me that was a paralyzing hurdle. I overcame it by establishing in my mind that meeting face to face with prospects was vital to the survival of our company. I set it in stark terms: If I did not get out and meet people, we would fail. And failure was not an option.
Prior to each meeting I would find a moment of silence and make a list of things that I wanted to learn about the person, their company, and their situation. It was just four or five questions, but I found that writing them by hand just prior to the meeting helped put my mind in the proper mode. There is something about your mind and hand interacting with paper during a meeting that both calms and focuses.
Here are some of the questions I would ask:
- How is your business doing?
- Where do you manufacture your product?
- How do you hire your top people?
- What is it like to live in St. Louis (or whatever city we were in)?
- What do you love about your job?
- What would you change if you could?
- Tell me about your health insurance program?
- How do you fund it?
- Are your employees happy with it?
I love to learn about people’s stories. I’m fascinated by the decisions people make and where those decisions take them. So rather than beginning a FIB with a flood of facts about my company, I genuinely wanted to learn about this person, how they ended up where they did, how their business was doing, and how they made decisions. Along that path of discovery, it was natural and easy to blend in the more pertinent questions about their benefits, insurance, and so forth.
It Works for All Stages
While my experience with FIB was born in the startup phase, I have seen the power at all phases of growth. It is every bit as vital in large organizations lest they lose touch with their customers.
Amazingly, to me at least, I have been told by many pros that this analog way of selling is outdated and unnecessary. It seems that every few years the conventional wisdom becomes that we have somehow entered an entirely new era of transacting business and that humans no longer need to meet with each other in person.
I don’t buy it. There are too many variables in developing new products and getting other companies to buy them. It’s sort of like predicting the weather. What a face-to-face meeting or, better still, a bunch of face-to-face meetings does for you is invaluable. Sitting behind a laptop looking at a dashboard of metrics will never provide you the volumes of insightful data needed to succeed.
It also might seem that this strategy is only fit for complex large-company sales. I found that even when we were selling over the phone to small businesses, it was beneficial to have a parallel FIB effort to get a sampling of what those small businesses really wanted and needed. If someone tells you that meeting face to face with your customers and prospects is too expensive or not applicable to your target market, use that as a signal that it will be that much more valuable for your efforts. The more rare an activity, generally the more powerful.
It Works for All Types of Businesses
While my experience is in the software industry, I have observed the power of FIB in all areas of business. Here is how I see it applying in a variety of ways:
A farmer walking her land, putting her hand in the soil, checking for disease or pests, tasting the produce right from the root.
A restaurant owner greeting their guests each evening. One of the most successful restaurants in our hometown of Charleston is Hall’s Chophouse. Every evening one of the members of the Hall’s family has their feet in the restaurant, greeting guests and checking on each table.
The local auto repair shop owner being onsite to keep the community goodwill going. Last year we had an issue with a tire while traveling. I looked online for a place with good reviews and found Mason’s Auto Repair in Port Orange, FL. Founded in 1963, the place is still family owned. I met the owner and watched him greet people as they stopped in to say hello, to pick up supplies for a local youth sporting event, and of course to have their cars repaired. (They still have fives stars on Google.)
Even bloggers. You would think that if there were a business immune from needing FIB it would be bloggers. Yet, as I’ve gotten to know more bloggers in the Financial Independence community, I find them to be some of the most active people in FIB. They attend local meet-ups, host events in their hometowns, and travel to conferences to meet face to face with others. Getting the sense of community stirs creativity, and ideas—the currency of bloggers—compound rapidly when interacting with people.
Design It into Your System
I felt so strongly about this core metric that I eventually made it one of the most important stats on our weekly management dashboard. We built it into our Salesforce data entry and reporting systems. I reviewed it every Monday for the prior week (and daily as we got closer to the close of a month or quarter).
It is as simple as this: Add a FIB field to your sales tracking system. Capture the date of the FIB. Then report on those visits and totals for each week/month/quarter. You will begin to identify patterns of successful sales people and teams. You will learn how many FIBs it takes to get a signed contract. And perhaps, more importantly, you will be able to identify potential sales misses and can intervene before it’s too late.
For example, I would see a sales team in Chicago with five sales reps and they reported 10 FIBs for the week. That’s only two per rep. I would then see a team of five reps in Dallas who had 22 FIBs for the week. Often they would both have a similar sales forecast for the quarter. I knew Dallas was going to outsell Chicago simply by glancing at the FIB activity. I also knew I had a manager problem in Chicago because the manager couldn’t get their folks past the gatekeepers and in the buildings. Once I had this setup across the country, it was easy to predict our sales, identify rising stars, and identify needs for training and support.
I learned to feel the health (or lack thereof) of the business by the volume of FIBs we had.
A Secret Weapon for Product Development
Another key advantage of visiting with the customer community is product insight. By walking around the halls of a large employer or insurance carrier, we could hear what our product needed. Sometimes that was in the form of complaints about our current product.
While I never enjoyed hearing that our software wasn’t living up to users’ expectations, I did realize that it was better for us to hear it quickly so we could address the issue and turn that complaint into a compliment.
Give Yourself the Ultimate Advantage
Business and career success requires an ongoing, rapid, fresh set of information about your industry, customers, prospects, and products. The most direct route to the largest amount of that information comes when you’re meeting face to face with people who will use your product. Avail yourself of the strategic advantage of this real-time information by putting your feet in the buildings of those you wish to serve.
If you’re in sales, add FIB to your data gathering metrics and report on it at least weekly. If you’re in accounting, get out from behind that screen and go talk to people who rely on your work to see how they are doing, what they could use help analyzing, and how you can help make them—and, in turn, your company—more successful.
In his book, Walking, Erling Kagge shares this wonderful line, “Your feet are your best friends.” Take care of your best friends and use them to transport yourself to outsized success and rapid advancement by putting them out in the buildings of your industry.