Entrepreneurs know that the key to business success is to understand the needs of their customers and deliver. However, finding out what customers truly want and value is challenging. Technology affords many ways to gather customer data and learn more, but what it cannot do is replace the human experience of a face-to-face conversation followed by the affirmation of a handshake.
Guy Bolduc of eNdoto Corp., a small business located in East Hartford, was working on his budget and hesitated when it came time to consider whether or not to invest money in trade shows. While his business had participated in trade shows in the past and the experience provided exposure, the bottom line was that they were expensive and resulted in very few sales. These shows provided an opportunity to meet, but not really connect. Not exactly inspiring.
As he drove home, he passed Kentucky Fried Chicken and had an epiphany. Colonel Sanders went door to door with his product so that people could experience it; why not do the same with eNdoto? Old-school connection was the answer. What was old, is new and was needed. Guy and engineer George went on a 30-day road trip across the country pulling their showcase trailer of products in order to meet, understand and connect with customers.
They created community at each stop and were floored by the crowds of people who showed up to see and touch their products. They ran out of marketing material and had to reprint it while on the road. People wanted to stay and talk beyond the end time of each visit.
Customers could put a face with the voices they heard on the phone and eNdoto could tell their story in real and meaningful ways. They heard new ideas and learned about customer needs on the spot, so the ride to the RV site or next location became an innovation lab to think, dream and plan.
The business results were phenomenal, but they experienced additional outcomes that changed them as people. They had planned to connect with the home office daily to ensure things were running smoothly. They had prepared to be away and had ensured that the talented staff at home was prepared to manage without them.
But the unexpected gift of intermittent internet connections made daily connecting impossible. This unexpectedly created the opportunity for the staff to shine, lead and make decisions without them. They exceeded expectations.
Drawing on the "Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership" detailed by "The Leadership Challenge," authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, the lessons learned were:
• Model the way. Clarify your values. Elevate connection in your business model. Customers want to be seen, valued and heard. Create that experience and bring it to them. Align actions to shared values.
• Inspire a shared vision. Enlist others in a common vision. This was an all-out eNdoto effort. It took all employees to make it happen. The outcome is an inspired and creative team that sees its role in the "big picture."
• Challenge the process. Commit to doing things differently and be willing to experiment and take risks. Channel your inner Colonel Sanders.
• Enable others to act. Trust your team to do what you have asked of them and more. Allow them to lead and get out of their way. The staff was changed and empowered by the experience.
• Encourage the heart. Let your team know that you appreciate their wading into discomfort with you and being all-in regardless of the outcome. Celebrate bravery.
This was a heart experience for the folks at eNdoto. The community for entrepreneurs is their customer. Sales are important, but they cannot exist without understanding and connecting with the human spirit. Their road trip confirmed that caring is good business.
As the eNdoto team prepares for another trip, this time with a new and larger trailer, they are grateful for the inspiration of Colonel Sanders and the leadership lessons from the road. What can you do in 30 days to change your organization, business or community?
Karen Senteio is the director of consulting and training at Leadership Greater Hartford.