I recently met a world-class sales professional named Aaron Ouellette at my local Starbucks. Aaron is the store manager of U.S. Cellular in Auburn, Maine. When I went to pay for my espresso the barista smiled and told me to leave my Starbucks card in my coat pocket because my coffee was paid for. I simply assumed I had accumulated enough frequent caffeinator miles on the card to qualify for a complimentary drink. Not the case she let me know the gentleman located in the corner of the store purchased it for me.
I immediately made my way over to introduce myself and thank him for his generosity. When I asked him what prompted him to buy me a cup of coffee he explained to me he was buying everyone’s coffee for the next two hours. It was part of his company’s marketing and outreach efforts. This is not just some pay it forward sort of blip on the radar screen. And it certainly wasn’t a quick fix approach to marketing like a lot of knee jerk reactions we see in business today. US Cellular has created a company- wide initiative called Surprise and Delight and Ouellette’s supervisor gave him the latitude to simply go surprise and delight people in the community by doing something nice. This is what led him to Starbucks.
When I asked him to explain this unique strategy, he responded: “Our competitors AT&T and Verizon are #1 and #2 respectively in our market. While I might not have $5 million to put towards advertising like they do, I can do something nice for someone today who may remember that kind act when their contract expires.”
Ouellette wasn’t focusing on the competition or lamenting what U.S. Cellular doesn’t have and can’t do. Instead he made a conscious choice to focus on the controllables. In other words, what they do have and can do.
Beyond finding a way to compete as the underdog, the great thing about the U.S. Cellular surprise and delight initiative is the neuroscience behind it. People who are depressed lack a chemical in their brains called serotonin also known as the happy neurotransmitter. Doctors prescribe Celexa Prozac and other anti-depressants to help elevate the depressed patient’s serotonin level. The interesting thing about a prescription is that it isn’t nearly as powerful as, surprising and delighting, to put it in US Cellular terms. Any time you perform receive or even just witness a kind act your body sends your serotonin level through the roof at a much higher level and for a longer amount of time than the medication ever could deliver. So what U.S. Cellular has done is a win-win-win for everyone involved; from Ouellette feeling better by performing this initiative to delighting the Starbucks patrons who received the benefits of his gesture to the Starbucks employees who witnessed happy guests get even happier.
It is only fitting that he chose Starbucks as the location for his surprise and delight mission. It’s a brand whose retail experience is congruent with U.S. Cellular’s. Starbucks doesn’t have employees, they have partners. U.S. Cellular doesn’t have customers they build relationships with clients. There is a big difference. An employee works simply for the organization whereas a partner works with the organization. The term customer implies a transaction took place. The term client implies that a relationship exists.
The most powerful statement I heard from Ouellette was when he mentioned his philosophy on the whole initiative:
I may not win you over as a new client today; but I will earn your business eventually.
His comments stood out in my mind because quite simply, he has a winning mindset. He gets the fact that sales like athletics is about possessing a process-oriented mindset not an outcome mindset. With championship caliber sales people selling isn’t something you do to someone; it’s something you do for someone. The difference is the former is purely manipulation and the latter is grounded in facilitation.
This process-oriented mindset is a lot like the methods farmers use to grow bamboo. Bamboo farmers plant giant timber bamboo seeds six feet deep in the ground and wtera them every day. At the end of the first year they see no growth. They continue to water them daily. At the end of year number two they still see no results from their daily efforts to water the bamboo. After three years there is still no outward sign of growth. Then all of the sudden after four years (over 1 200 days of watering) once the bamboo reaches the surface the bamboo shoots will sprout up at a rate of 90 feet in just 60 days.
This is the type of growth every sales person want, but not every sales person is willing to put the work in today knowing they may not see any results from it for four or maybe even five years. The most successful sales professionals will apply that water daily any way because they have a vision for where they are going and the faith focus and resilience to get there.
In addition to the surprise and delight initiative another way U.S. Cellular waters their bamboo is by offering free smartphone training classes for novices. Ouellette added that even if the participants aren’t currently US Cellular clients he will still offer them training on their iPhone because it is an opportunity for him to make a another positive impression (apply more water) on them. Then when the day comes that they explore changing providers they will think of him.
Ouellette commented to me that this initiative is not simply about making a sale. There are more important things for a sales person to be thinking about than just making a sale today. Sure sales are important, don’t get me wrong, but it is about building the relationships to set yourself up for long term success. With the economy today consumers are fickle and have a long term memory for bad experiences with vendors or service providers. We want to be sure that when someone has a bad experience with one of our competitors we are top of mind for them and can wow them with a great experience at U.S. Cellular.
Instead of viewing the consumer’s fickle mindset as an obstacle, Oullette and U.S. Cellular view it as an opportunity. By doing so this opportunity can serve as a competitive advantage for them moving forward.
Our society today has what I call the Staples Easy Button mentality. Too many people expect easy results and instant gratification at the push of a button. This is an illusion, there is no easy button, but there is a hard button. You push it every day for four five maybe ten years in some cases and the results will follow. The reality of it is that it takes thousands of nights to become an overnight success.
Everyone’s bamboo is different. Maybe yours isn’t a sales job like Oullette’s. It could be that challenging teenager you are raising or a new start-up company you founded. Perhaps it is a relationship with your spouse. Regardless of what your bamboo is, keep the faith and keep watering it to get the result you want.