Your Quality Customer Magnet

by Jim Stein

I didn’t know it at the time, but I started working on creating a Quality Customers framework 48 years ago. It was the summer of ’74 and I was 16 and ready for adventure. I had worked weekend jobs to save for and buy a used Datsun pickup with a huge gash across the side. I lived in L.A., and one morning, $80 and I jumped in that truck and made our escape. We headed east. 

A few hours later, I almost reached the Nevada state line. I say almost because my car broke down a few miles short and I had it towed to a garage in Baker, grabbed a pack, and headed to the on-ramp to thumb a ride east. It all felt quite amazing as I camped out on the Crystal River in Colorado with new friends and then hitched up to the World’s Fair in Spokane, Washington. My customer education began in earnest as I ran booths selling gingerbread love cakes (don’t ask) and commemorative stamps, as well as guessing people’s weights and ages in front of big crowds in the carnival section. I became obsessed with selling dynamics, what attracts customers, and which ones were good and bad. 

My weight guessing gig was the most fun. I was the lone man standing athwart his mighty scale—a great orator showered with money from his admirers. At 16, “man” might be stretching it, but I was working on a mustache. It was fun to talk up a storm, build a group of 10 to 30 people and pluck a “volunteer” from the group every minute or two. My guessing was OK and getting better with practice, so the key to the business was attracting people to play. 

This became my primary source of frustration. Unless it was busy on the midway, it was impossible to build a crowd. Stragglers wouldn’t come in. I’d strain for an hour and pull in less than two bucks. I’d see the other booth workers reading the paper or taking a nap, figuring nothing could be done. That was never going to work for me. I just had to figure it out. I tried a hundred different pitches to get folks to play. Nothing worked and my frustration boiled. I had a day off and decided to walk the entire fairground, go in all the pavilions, and see everything. Maybe something could reveal the secret. How could I, even in slow times, always attract an ongoing flow of good customers—those who wanted to play and have their friends play? 

I got a good education that day by popping in and out of every pavilion, concession, and shop. Nothing gave me my answer until I checked out what I thought was a very slow section of the fairground. I turned the corner on the first block of shops and suddenly came upon a big, enthusiastic crowd encircling a small booth. Old, young, families…everyone was in the mix. They were all oriented so they could see what was going on in this little booth and waiting their turn to buy. I pushed through the layers of crowd to get a better look at what was so interesting. They were selling caramel corn, vanilla fudge and taffy. I had passed a dozen booths selling those things during my trek, so the secret I was looking for wasn’t what, it was how. For the next couple of hours, I watched everything they did and didn’t do. 

Here’s what I saw. The booth was a combo of open air and plexiglass so you could see every part from any angle. There were four people in the booth: two making candy and two waiting on customers. The two candymakers never looked at the crowd; they focused on their craft with a high level of precision. Scoops of ingredients were slowly added and stirred with big wood paddles. Measurements were taken, timers were set and sequences were followed so they were engaged in different parts of three processes at all times. They were experts, all right. Everyone in the crowd knew it and got to see their expertise in action. The two serving the customers were friendly enough, but they seemed more an extension of the inside team than a separate setup for the outside crowd. They carried an obvious pride in being part of this exquisite enterprise. They treated their booth like a sacred space, wiping it down with excruciating detail. They didn’t hurry any order, but they were lightning fast when it came to fulfillment. So good, in fact, that their cutting, boxing, bagging and cashiering became part of the show. They never called out for business, they just handled their jobs with in-the-moment joy and expertise, which attracted good customers like a high-powered magnet. 

I woke up the next day thinking, “Hot Center.” This was my epiphany captured in two words and I was bursting with excitement to try it. Hot Center was the crucial first step to pull in good customers when others can’t. I couldn’t wait to get started. I opened my Guess Your Weight booth to an almost empty midway with only a few stragglers. Half the surrounding booths didn’t even bother to open. A perfect morning to test my new Hot Center concept. I called a guy over. He didn’t want to play but he gave me a few minutes to satisfy his own curiosity. I put my new Hot Center plan into play. I had been blasting away trying to build a crowd, but now, I focused only on him and spoke into the microphone in a near whisper. I started describing in great detail how I made my actual guess. I was precise, yet I brought in my personal story and started asking about his story. I focused only on him and never looked up. It was a show that only he and I shared, and we both were really enjoying it. 

Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up to see a middle-aged lady with a dollar in her hand. Behind her was a crowd of more than 30 people arched in a half circle around the booth watching the action. Hot Center, indeed! The guy ended up playing the game and I put on a show that was only for this small crowd. I engaged with and played only to this group. They laughed at my jokes, jumped in with their own comments and egged each other on to play. Wow, my Hot Center had expanded to include my new enthusiastic group. Ones and twos would play and then leave, so my Hot Center crowd started to dimmish. That’s where I witnessed the second powerful attracting force. Seeing my Hot Center and feeling its invisible spirit, people who were walking by on their way to other parts of the fairground were magically drawn in, replacing those who left after playing and watching “our show” for a few minutes. So, new customers kept playing and the crowd was continually renewed with potential customers.

After enjoying a couple of hours of nonstop action, I was floating on air. But it gets even better. A couple approached me as if they knew me, like we were family. They gave me a big smile and said, “Hey, Sarah told us to come see you.” I thought, “Sounds good, but who is Sarah?” Then through their chatter, I realized Sarah was one of my morning’s customers and she was out telling people to go see me. My Hot Center expanded again to reach all areas of the fairground! 

Here’s how you can use the Hot Center principles.

1. It starts with you—an alignment of one. First, in your own mind, gain maximum clarity of your business values and how you treat people and manage projects. 

2. Bring your employees into your Hot Center. Expand and align your team by modeling your own alignment and taking symbolic actions that illuminate your team’s unique approach to working on projects and valuing customers. 

3. Your selected customers join your Hot Center and refine your brand’s meaning. Focus on them. You both want a meaningful connection. Make each one valuable.

4. All customers and potential customers are invited to join your Hot Center as they relate to your brand through your stories about people. 

5. Your Hot Center is a magnet for potential customers as your own customers refer more, creating an unbreakable competitive advantage.