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A sales representative of a major storage vendor was having difficulty getting a meeting with the CIO of a US drugstore chain. All efforts failed until he came up with a game plan to visit the managers of 20 stores in the chain. He theorised that the store managers were actually the customers of the chain’s CIO. He was right. The visits unearthed a major storage problem that the CIO was unaware of, leading the salesman to get a visit with the CIO. A big contract followed. Salespeople are paid to craft innovative ways to sell. But what about you? How good a salesperson are you? Get out your PDA and look at the past year. How much time did you spend in the market with cash-paying customers? Probably very little. Warren McFarlan, senior associate dean at the Harvard Business School, told the audience at February’s CIO US Enterprise Value Retreat about a CIO who spends 25% of his time in the field with customers. That’s a quarter of his time — one entire week a month. The power of customer conviction and the power of new ideas on how to serve customers better is the by-product of visiting customers regularly. When you meet face to face with customers, you have an opportunity to really understand their concerns and preferences. Ask customers what they worry about. Ask them what they would like your company to start doing, stop doing and continue doing to serve them better. Ask them how much they know about your company, its values and its other customers. If they know very little about your company, its products and its strategies, it would not take much for them to switch to your competition. Getting in touch with your customers can also help you do your own job better. Want to get your frozen budgets approved for the rest of 2002? Preface your monthly presentation to your management team with how the proposed IT investments will serve customers better. Frame your comments in the customers’ voice, not yours. Position yourself and the IT department as customer advocates. Customers and prospective customers are the most valuable asset on your company’s balance sheet. Make getting out in the field to visit them an important part of your job as well as that of your staff. Customers, not the CFO, will show you the surest way to enhance your company’s shareholder value.Gary Beach is publisher of CIO US. He can be reached at email@example.com.