One of the seminal business books of the 1980’s, In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, (kudos to you if you’re too young to know of it) explained the importance of ‘managing by walking around.’

The idea was that you learned things, absorbed the culture, uncovered problems and opportunities, and understood how things worked within your organization most effectively by being on the ground and among your team. Maybe this is obvious now, but it was then for many readers one of the bigger takeaways from the book.

Back in the early days of my sales career, I picked up on a variation of this approach from a Sun Microsystems sales guy. We both shared territory at AT&T and specifically Bell Labs. While I was selling them database software, Ed was busy setting them up with literally hundreds (or maybe even thousands?) of Sun servers.

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One ingredient fundamental to his success was his vendor badge. By having a vendor badge, Ed could enter the building at will and roam the halls of various Bell Labs facilities with impunity. He’d poke his head into offices and cubicles, ask about projects, hand out literature and tchotchkes, and basically act like a fellow employee.

And for all practical purposes, he was. It was brilliant and transformative. He was part of the AT&T fabric and knew about projects and reorganizations long before I did. He was on top of technical issues before they blew up. He could track down and meet with engineers in real-time. This was an epiphany for me, and I immediately set to work finding a client to sponsor my own vendor badge. (A significant part of my pitch was that they’d no longer have to walk down to the main entrance to sign me in.)

Later, when I was responsible for selling to Citigroup, I was able to secure a vendor badge that gave me similar access. I’d arrive at the main IT offices early and have my coffee in the company cafeteria on most mornings. Parked there afforded me the opportunity to informally catch up with various people (especially the hard to reach executives) in an environment that lent itself to more casual, collaborative conversations. I’d become a familiar fixture, ultimately converted from being some outside vendor to part of the team.

Since Sept. 11th, it isn’t as easy to get customers to advocate a vendor badge, nor is corporate security as likely to grant it. But the idea of selling by walking around remains worth pursuing. Be on the lookout for opportunities to walk freely among your customers.