Customer events are expanding at ITT Sheraton, too. We're not talking about 10,000 people here; however, a little idea dreamed up by a few salespeople over cocktails some eight years ago has taken a big place in ITT Sheraton's sales and marketing plan.

The Customer Appreciation Awards Gala, a black-tie affair for ITT Sheraton salespeople and their top corporate and association clients, is now a hot springtime ticket in Washington, DC. The party is held at The Carlton each year on the same night as the Academy Awards, which are simulcast into the ballroom.

In a business where relationships develop slowly, this customer meeting has been biding its time, gradually increasing in importance along with its attendees. "As ITT Sheraton's position in the DC market grew and we added properties such as The Phoenician and The St. Regis, we also began growing the attendance [at the gala] to include a high percentage of CEOs and presidents of companies and associations," says Charlie Robinson, director of ITT Sheraton's national sales office in Washington, DC, which organizes the gala. "It's grown from a cocktail party to a well-respected event that heads of organizations look forward to each year."

Shifting its focus up the corporate and association ladders is an important step in the positioning of ITT Sheraton brands, especially as it promotes its new Luxury Collection of hotels. "The event is held in appreciation for the top people, the people we don't deal with every day," Robinson says. "To sustain our growth in the corporate marketplace, we must reach out to these decision-makers and have a relationship, a presence, and an image there."

Not that the meeting managers at these organizations get overlooked. In fact, some of them get awarded-with their bosses there to see it. ITT Sheraton hands out several of its own "Academy Awards" to meeting planners in categories such as "Rising Star" and "Best Supporting Actor." And the party comes complete with "autograph-seekers" welcoming the stars into the ballroom.

Attendance at the Washington, DC gala maxed out three or four years ago and hasn't fallen off a bit. This year, ITT Sheraton decided to increase its investment in this meeting and spread the appreciation around a little: Three other properties held galas on the same night, linked together with videoconference equipment from PictureTel, AT&T, and Madge Networks. In addition to The Carlton in Washington, clients and salespeople gathered at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers, and the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel.

"I was really surprised at how popular the videoconferencing was. People were very interested in it," Robinson says. "Each hotel had a receiving/broadcasting station. We had some prescheduled exchanges"-Dan Weadock, senior vice president of ITT Corporation and president and CEO of ITT Sheraton Corporation welcomed all four crowds at once- "but a lot of customers who weren't on the prescheduled program stepped up to the plate."

This year's combined galas honored more than 1,000 Sheraton clients. "Our goal is twofold," says Frank Camacho, vice president, director of marketing and operations staff for ITT Sheraton North America. "To truly thank our customers for their business, and also to show off ITT Sheraton's ability to execute a continually changing and exciting meeting. Getting face to face with customers remains the only real way to build strong and enduring relationships-the aim of all our customer strategies."

Though the galas themselves are purely networking and relationship-building events, a good deal of selling goes on during the weeks leading up to the celebrations-and that is where ITT

Sheraton measures the return on its investment in them.

Right before this year's gala, dozens of sales executives from ITT Sheraton properties in the U.S. and Canada made hundreds of sales calls on clients in Washington, DC and Chicago. The results: $1.5 million in signed contracts, $7 million in verbally closed deals, $28 million worth of business "in the pipeline," and $20 million in new business. "That's $57 million worth of business conducted in three or four days," Robinson notes.

Part of the reason the customer outreach (the term "sales blitz" has been booted out of ITT Sheraton parlance) is so successful is that the customers decide who gets to call on them.

Robinson explains: "We go to the salespeople and ask them which 25 customers they want to see. Then we go to the customer and say, 'These four or five people want to see you. Who do you want to see?' The old days of 'You call on this zip code and you take that zip code' are over."

A Fair Deal What's also over are the days of corporate leaders making decisions in the best interest of the customer without actually asking the customer, face to face, what he or she wants.

That is the common thread that runs through the best customer meetings. Corporate executives don't just create them with customers in mind-they create them with customers at their sides. So the question of who gets more out of customer meetings-the customer or the company-is open for debate.

It's nicely illustrated by PeopleSoft's Grady, talking about the user conference registration fee.

"We break even. That's our plan," he says. "We charge $750 per person for a three-and-a-half-day event, and we spend all the money." No more, no less. That sounds like a goal worth shooting for: Make your customer meeting an even trade, and leave each side believing it got a deal.

When a company is creating a new product, thinking of changing a product, or looking for a specific answer to a specific question about a product, a specialized customer meeting-the focus group-can help.

"The value of a focus group is that it brings objectivity to the boardroom. It delivers the customer's perspective," says Bill Edgar, founder of Executive Focus in Wayland, MA. That's important because the greatest threat to a company's success is complacency-assuming that your customers' needs and desires are constant. "Customer [opinions] change every day, every week, every month," Edgar says. "Nothing is what it used to be."

Companies hire Edgar to help define what they want to learn from a focus group, to screen participants, and then to serve as the neutral facilitator of the discussion. His corporate clients are usually present (hidden behind a one-way mirror) during the focus groups he leads, so that they may view the very important non-verbal cues given off by focus group participants.

Most companies can benefit from the perspective of a focus group, whether their products or services are hugely successful or mostly unknown. "In every line of work, [executives] are too close to the trees to see the forest," he says. "Think about Coca-Cola. How did they ever come out with New Coke? They didn't talk to the right people."

Here are some of Edgar's guidelines for focus group moderators: * Develop a discussion guide with questions you want answered, but don't adhere to it rigidly. "Invariably, you get off the track. And that's good. The real important point comes when a respondent suddenly says, 'Well, why don't you paint it green?' And you can hear [the company observers] on the other side of the mirror slapping their foreheads."

* Watch body language, and respond to it; e.g., "I hear you all saying, 'Yes,' but your faces are saying, 'Maybe.'"

* Use humor to break the ice and to keep respondents alert and awake. "If you're talking about a dull subject, acknowledge it," Edgar suggests. "Fake a yawn and stretch and say, 'Let's take a break from this exciting subject. Then let's come back and go at it, and give these people their money's worth."

* Don't let one person dominate the discussion.

Most employees say they can describe their companies' customers, says a new survey commissioned by the American Society for Quality Control (ASQC) and conducted by The Gallup Organization.

Fully 78 percent of the 758 manufacturing employees contacted in the poll said they could do a "pretty good" or "very good" job of describing their companies' customers to a new employee.

This awareness reflects the emphasis in recent years on companies becoming customer-driven or customer-focused organizations, says Deborah Hopen, ASQC chairman.

But are enough employees actually making contact with customers so that they really know them? More than half (55 percent) of respondents said they have spoken with customers about their companies' products or services, while 49 percent said they have handled customer complaints.

But apparently not all of these employees are being given a chance to offer the insight they gain from this customer contact. Only 38 percent said they have been involved in product or service design. Further, upper-white-collar employees (58 percent) are much more likely to be involved in product design teams than blue-collar employees (30 percent), who actually make the product.