Why the internet will never tell you all you need to know

If you’re in business, I’m sure you’ve attended countless business dinners. I recall dinner meetings along the beaches of Mexico, atop Vegas’ newest casinos, in Milan’s finest restaurants, even aboard cruise ships. But no dinner meeting I’ve ever attended compares to one I recently experienced in Denmark. In a customer’s home. With her family. Celebrating Christmas in October.

“Ben,” she asked. “Have you ever had a Danish Christmas dinner?”

“Why are you asking me this in September??” That’s what I wanted to say but instead replied, “No.”

“Well, then,” she continued, “that’s what we’re going to do. My family and I will see you at my house in two weeks.”

Preparing for this meeting was different. Instead of packing brochures, I packed a book entitled Awkward Family Photos. As opposed to a powerpoint presentation, I found myself practicing how to say Merry Christmas in Danish. (Spelled phonetically, in case you’re wondering, it’s something like Glady Yule.) And what to wear? I decided against the business suit and seriously considered a Santa Claus costume. Maybe next time.

The food was outstanding. In other words, not your standard Applebee’s menu. Roasted duck, candied potatoes, crushed almond pudding.

But the part I most appreciated was getting to know my customer the person:
How worried she gets when her happy go lucky teenage son misses his curfew.
How proud she is of her other son, a well spoken engineering student.
How delighted she becomes when her husband dashes around the kitchen.
How passionate she is about art.

Yes, we spoke a little of business but I was reminded that business is not about a brand or a stock price; those are simply outcomes. Business is about people. Specifically, our ability to connect with one another and solve one another’s problems.
What a gift this valued customer gave me. To her and her family, I say Thank You. Thank you for the great food, the wonderful company, and the lifelong memory.

To the rest of us, a question:
How well do you really know your customers? Not the business stats. That’s a given and frankly, surface level stuff that any buffoon with an internet connection can find. Knowing that is important but not enough. I’m talking the person behind the contract. Their family, their hobbies, their aspirations.

There’s no easy way to answer that question but I believe it comes back to one key principal: Becoming genuinely interested in the other person. In today’s world, where nearly every product and service can be purchased through the cold, disinterested click of a computer, the best in business are always looking for ways to know their people.

Ask yourself:
“When I visit my customers or colleagues, do I do most of the talking or most of the listening?”
“When preparing for a meeting, do I spend most of my time thinking about what I’m going to tell or what I’m going to ask?”
“Am I most concerned about getting my customers interested in me or learning something interesting about them?”

I got lucky. I was blessed with a customer generous enough to invite me to a family dinner. But even when that’s not possible, I’m reminded that we have every opportunity – no, make that every obligation – to connect with business partners on a personal level.

And if you ever find yourself in Copenhagen at 1:00am face to face with a smiling, carefree 18 year old kid, tell him to go home. His mom is waiting :)