The Man with the Folding Chair

Martha Rogers
Founding Partner
Peppers & Rogers Group

One day a few years ago, a top executive at Siemens AG was on his way to an internal sales meeting at one of the division offices when he encountered a sales manager carrying a folding chair with him into the meeting. Curiosity aroused, the exec asked what was going on. The manager replied that whenever he brought this chair into a meeting, the whole character of the discussion was different. “Just watch,” the manager said, as they both entered the conference room. Several people, including sales reps, were already gathered in the room when the manager brought his chair in, unfolded it, and set it down empty next to his own chair.

“Who are you expecting to join us?” asked several of the sales reps already gathered for the meeting. “Shouldn’t we just get some more chairs brought in here?” some others suggested.

“No,” the manager replied, “this is my customer’s chair. I brought it into the meeting so my customer can sit right here and listen to our discussion.” Then, with a nod to the empty chair, the manager said the meeting could begin. But, as the sales manager had predicted, the character of the discussion was indeed quite different from the typical sales gathering. Several times during the meeting, participants found themselves asking whether a particular point would be made in this particular way if the customer were actually sitting there and listening. Would we say this in front of our customer? What would our customer think of our plan for dealing with this issue? How do we think our customer would interpret this new policy? Would our customer agree with us that this is a good idea, or not?

In the corridors of Siemens, based on this and other similar meetings, this sales manager became known as “Der Mann mit dem Klappstuhl,” or “the man with the folding chair.” But there’s a lesson in this story for all of us: We should be putting the customer’s perspective into every discussion we have and every decision we make. Nothing is more important to the long-term health of our business than the trust and confidence of our customers.

You might even consider carrying a folding chair yourself, just to be sure of capturing your own customers’
views and representing his or her interests.

Excerpted from Rules to Break and Laws to Follow: How Your Business Can Beat the Crisis of Short-Termism (Wiley, 2008) by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, Ph.D.