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Get Out of Your Office!

IPs are liberated. We're mobile, we're self-sufficient, and we're footloose and fancy-free. Tied down to our offices? Never! But, if that's really the case, then why do so many of us find ourselves becoming one with our cushy, ergonomically correct office chairs, our 19-inch Trinitron computer monitors, and our high-speed Internet connections, and spending far too little time outside of our offices -- visiting with clients, checking up on vendors, and doing all the other good things that lead to better business relationships?

As an IP, you have a special advantage over the nine-to-five desk jockeys who work for regular businesses -- you're the boss -- it's you who decides what's most important for your business and for your clients (and don't forget: what's best for your clients is often best for your business as well, because a happy client is a client who sends more work and referrals your way). And if what's best for your clients means spending more time with them -- on their turf -- then, for God's sake, that's exactly what you should be doing!

My first real job out of college was a fairly short-lived gig working as a buyer for the Department of the Navy in Washington, D.C. In between the orders for pencils, paper clips, and chairs, I bought a lot of interesting stuff. Microphones for the White House, orthodontic braces for the Naval Academy in Annapolis (don't want those guys and gals to have to go to war with crooked teeth!), plastic covers for the Camp David swimming pool, Lenox china for the vice president's house -- the list goes on and on. But you know what? My coworkers and I worked our butts off in that job. We were under the gun to process a lot of orders each and every day -- something like 2,000 or 3,000, I don't remember the exact number -- and woe to the buyer who didn't meet the quota. Can you say "walk the plank"?

Anyway, the point is that we were chained to our telephones -- calling here, calling there -- trying to get the best deal on scuba gear, pipe wrenches, refrigerators, and $500 hammers. Sure, we had half an hour for lunch -- just enough time to go downstairs, grab a bite to eat at the snack bar, and hightail it back to work. But, we never had a reason to visit a vendor or drop in on a sales rep. In fact, we really had very few reasons to leave our desks at all -- everything we needed was right there. A telephone, a pad of paper, all the Skillcraft pens and pencils we could ever want. We didn't even have to leave our desks to get our work -- our boss was so concerned for our well-being that she dropped the purchase requisitions in our in boxes for us.

But, you know what? There was something missing in our work lives; we craved human contact from the outside world. We lived for the days when a sales rep would come to visit us, and there was one sales rep who knew that. And because he knew that, he had us wrapped around his little finger. Once a week -- every week, it didn't matter if it was sunny, rainy, snowy, icy, slushy, or mushy -- Mr. Lewis, salesman extraordinaire for Ginn's Office Supply (a business that is now, unfortunately, defunct, or merged, or purged, or otherwise out of business) would make it a point to drop in and visit his hungry customers.

Mr. Lewis was the quintessential salesman -- he made the polished salespeople pitching their Pocket Fisherman fishing poles and Veg-o-matics on television look like rookies -- and he could really talk a line to us desk-bound buyers. "Hi, how ya doing? How are the kids? Boy -- it sure is [insert appropriate weather conditions here] today! Do you need a price on anything? Have you got any orders for me today?" And did we ever have orders for Mr. Lewis! We saved them for an entire week -- depriving the competition of hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue each and every year -- all to spend a few minutes with our savior, Mr. Lewis.

So, what was the big attraction? In retrospect, the attractions were many.

First, when Mr. Lewis dropped by, we all had a valid business reason to take a break -- to put our requisitions aside, to put the phone on hold, and just shoot the breeze for a while. Sure, Mr. Lewis was a business associate but, perhaps even more important, he was a trusted friend and confidant. Had a problem with your boyfriend, wife, or neighbor? Mr. Lewis was all ears, and he was ready to either commiserate with you, or give you a rousing pep talk -- whatever you needed to keep you going for a few more hours. And all this attention was given out liberally and for free by our ace sales rep -- whether or not you had an order for him that day.

Second, shopping with Mr. Lewis was convenient. Not only was he right there in front of us, ready to take our orders, but he had memorized the prices for every single item that his office supply company sold. We're not talking just a few big items here -- like an IBM Selectric typewriter (remember those?), or a case of copier paper -- we're talking hundreds of different items, from teensy-weensy pushpins to file folders to scissors and staple removers and much, much more.

Third, and perhaps most important, Mr. Lewis represented freedom -- the kind of freedom that, chained to our desks, we could only dream of. We knew that here was someone who most definitely wasn't chained to his desk, but who instead was as free as a bird to jump in his car and visit any customer he wanted any time he liked. Or maybe just drive to a nice spot next to the Potomac River, roll down a window, and catch a nap. Chances are, we imagined, he took more than half an hour for lunch, too!

So, what's the point of this excruciatingly long story? One of the keys to better client relations is getting to know your clients -- really getting to know them. And there's no better way to do just that than to spend time with them -- on their turf. Telephone calls don't make it, and email and voicemail messages definitely don't make it. When it comes to getting to know your clients and developing strong and long-term relationships with them, you've got to commit to some major one-on-one, face-to-face time with them.

This means calling up all of your clients, setting appointments to visit them, and getting out of your office. Forget for a moment the fully stocked refrigerator down the hall (put back that Twinkie -- right now!), the killer stereo system with those decidedly non-Muzak Limp Bizkit CDs, and the bathrobes-are-okay dress code. Do not pass Go, and do not collect $200 until you have jumped into your car, or into a cab or bus, or onto the subway, and motored on over to your client's office. I know it's gonna be tough to drag yourself out of your cushy little office, but as an IP, it's not only your job, but it's your duty to build long-term relationships with your clients that will not only stand the test of time, but that will keep those nice juicy checks coming to you on a regular basis.

The next time you find yourself sitting at your desk, staring at your computer, absorbed in your work, remember Mr. Lewis, and the power of getting out of your office and spending time with your clients. You could be casting the vote that determines the success of your business -- or its failure.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Peter Economy if you like. You may also like to see his biography.

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