Why Charles River Apparel Went on an East Coast Customer Road Trip (in a Mini Cooper!)
These days, automation is the name of the game in sales and marketing. Overall, that’s been a good thing for businesses, reducing lift, increasing efficiency and leading to better results. But it’s also made everything so dang impersonal. Sometimes, to really connect in the digital age, you’ve got to ditch the screens, hop in a tricked out Mini Cooper and go on an East Coast tour to visit customers.
OK, maybe that’s a bit unconventional. But that’s what drew Charles River Apparel to the idea. The team at the Sharon, Massachusetts-based supplier was looking for a way to get out there and meet supporters—you know, spend some quality time with customers, bring the brand direct to the people. The perfect vehicle for that, it turned out, was an actual vehicle.
So the team bought a pre-owned, royal blue Mini Cooper Clubman and wrapped it in Charles River branding. After six months of planning, they loaded the trunk with jackets, banners, a tent, a display rack—everything needed for a pop-up store—and set off down I-95 on a multi-city road trip. Captained by Barry Lipsett, the company’s president, the car would carry sales reps and samples to visit customers from Boston to Georgia.
The trip took the Charles River crew to coffee shops, storefronts and three different trade shows. There were visits with six sales reps, multiple distributors and an old college roommate. There were highways and country roads, wrong turns and bad weather. At one point, there was a stop for new brake pads and rotors. It was, as any good road trip, an adventure. And, for Charles River, it was worth every mile.
“It was about reconnecting with the customer,” Lipsett tells me. “The main purpose was to hit the road and get to know our customers face to face—spend the day with them and see how our brand was doing in their market. See what their day-to-day was like and get to know them so that we can build stronger relationships. Being in the field first-hand led to so much more customer knowledge than we could ever get from behind our desks.”
When we asked Lipsett for some memorable moments from the trip, his stories were all about people. There was Mike Petrocelli in Worcester, Mass., a long-time customer who shared stories about his dad, former Boston Red Sox shortstop and third baseman Rico Petrocelli. There was Debbie Burdett, the Midas service advisor who patched up the car. There were Byron and Natalie in Atlanta, Charles River customers since 1991. There was the random highway encounter with a honking driver who turned out to be a customer.
All of it taught the Charles River team some valuable lessons about the power of relationships. And while the supplier is gearing up for a potential sequel—a West Coast tour, while not yet official, is in the idea stage—Lipsett made sure to note that you don’t need a Mini Cooper or a multi-city road trip to connect with customers in the promo industry.
“Really, it’s about being hands-on and getting out there,” he said. “Visiting your customers doesn’t have to just be for the sales reps. And when it mostly is, make sure you’re communicating with them to really get that in-the-field feedback for what your customers’ needs and wants are. Talk with them, ask questions, give them surveys. Always strive to serve them better.”
Of course, a cool car always helps.