Recent circumstances had me riding shotgun in a stranger's SUV, making the long but spectacular drive from Calgary, Alberta to Fernie, British Columbia. An hour or so into our 4 hour trip we had harvested most of the low-hanging weather and sports topics, and I thought I'd try and lead us into more substantive areas.

“What do you do for a living, Paul?” I asked my driver.

“I work in the oil and gas industry here in Alberta. Business is absolutely booming these days,” he said.

Canada, he explained, pumps huge amounts of oil and gas out of the ground, both for itself and for export. It's the world's 3rd largest natural gas producer and 9th largest producer of oil. Most of this comes from fields in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, and in the Norwest Territories close to the Arctic Circle.

“So do you work on the rigs?” I asked.

“Not exactly,” Paul laughed. “I'm on the telecommunications side of things. My company sells satellite phones to oil and gas companies. That's the only way the home office can communicate with their remote exploration and drilling operations.

“My father and older brother own the company and I market and do some selling for them. But I did work as a roughneck on a rig for 6 months not too long ago.”

Intrigued by this last remark--he definitely didn't look the roughneck type to me--and hungry to learn more about the industry and the technology I pressed him for details: Who are the big players? How deep are the wells? How long does it take to drill one? How does the equipment operate? What are the dangers? What's it like to live out in the middle of nowhere for months at a stretch?

Paul answered all my questions confidently and credibly. He had obviously learned a great deal from his experience--and clearly much of it the hard way.

Then to my main question: “Whatever motivated you to put your marketing and sales job aside for 6 months to become a driller?” I asked. “Unless it's all about money, you'd better help me understand how doing something like that advances your career.”

“You need to understand something very important about the oil and gas business,” he explained. “It's unbelievably competitive. There's a lot of money to be made and lots of people going after it. But if you want to do business with any of the major companies you've got to show you know what you're talking about. That's all there is to it.”

“But why does a guy who sells phones and telecommunications software into this industry have to prove himself by working the rigs? I don't see that having drilling expertise has anything to do with hooking up phone service for camps out in the middle of nowhere?”

Paul smiled. “When I got into this business a few years back I learned very fast that the first question you always get asked when you start to engage with oil and gas people is, 'What experience do you have in my business?'

“And it doesn't matter whether you're pitching them on drill bits or inventory management systems. It's all about credibility, which to them means proving you know first hand something about their world. And it's also very much about relationships. You never get very far with the second unless you've done a good job establishing the first. So that's why I took the job on the rigs. And that's why these days I'm blowing by my competitors who don't seem to have gotten the message on this yet.”

Paul went on to tell me how his company, small as it is, is doing more new business by far than its closest, much larger competitor. What's more, he said, customer retention has improved dramatically in recent years, and more and more of his business is coming from customers dissatisfied with rival companies.

Paul's story, apart from being interesting in itself, carries some simple but powerful sales and marketing lessons that apply across all businesses. Here are just a few.

On market focus. The business roadside is littered with the remains of companies that have tried to grow beyond their core competencies. Paul's company chose to concentrate its satellite phone business on the Western Canadian oil and gas industry, targeting major providers with remote exploration operations.

Although tempted several years ago to expand into a segment of the extreme sports market--wilderness snow mobilers, hikers and climbers, and sports fisherman--they chose instead to concentrate on a highly lucrative and expanding market that they knew well. Keeping a very disciplined business focus and executing intelligently and aggressively has served them extraordinarily well to this point.

On knowing your customers. Obviously Paul learned this lesson well. Building deep, productive relationships with customers--on their terms and not your own--is what distinguishes the great companies from the also-rans. Once a year, for example, Sony's legendary president, Nobuyuki Idei, put on a sales clerk's outfit for a week and sold consumer electronics in a local U.S. or European department store. He wanted to find out what people were buying and why.

Similarly, Jet Blue's president, David Neeleman, periodically does a stint as a flight attendant just to hear what his customers have to say.

Getting down at ground level with customers--listening, watching, testing ideas and assumptions--is fundamental to the success of any business and can hardly be overstated. John Sall, co-founder of SAS, the largest privately held software company in the world, explains his company's strategy very simply: “Listen to your customers. Listen to your employees. Do what they tell you.”

On putting some skin in the game. Perhaps nothing speaks more powerfully to a customer than a vendor who is committed to sharing risk. A demonstrated willingness to put a portion of one's own success or failure on the line in the service of one's customers creates enduring bonds of loyalty that transcend the standard customer satisfaction activities of most companies.

Paul's decision to put his own career aside for six months, live the rugged life of a roughneck in a remote oil field, and learn his customer's business from the ground up spoke volumes about the lengths he was willing to go for his customers. Finding ways to put some of your own skin in the game may up your costs short-term, but will pay you back many times over in the form of repeat business, fierce customer loyalty and unassailable differentiation over your competitors who haven't learned this lesson.

At a time when so many businesses have lost their way and are struggling simply to survive it's instructive to look at the ones that are making it and learn from them. In spite of dismal economic conditions, unsettling world events and fierce global competition companies like Paul's are managing not just to keep their businesses alive, but to grow them dramatically. How? By committing themselves to doing whatever it takes to create and keep totally satisfied customers.

As has always been the case, it's really just that simple.

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Basil Harris, Jr. is the founder and president of MarketStreams (, a strategic and product marketing consulting firm based in New Hampshire. He can be reached at