There is only so much learning employees can do from their desks inside an advertising agency — or any company, for that matter. You can read everything that is available in print and online, but until you actually get outside of the office and spend time listening to your audiences, you may not be able to reach your communication objectives.

motion passengers at shanghai china Since I started working at Two Rivers Marketing in 2002, I have traveled to nearly 40 states, many major metropolitan cities — from New York City to Seattle, from Tucson to Orlando and even Halifax, Nova Scotia — and countless small towns. What I have learned from my experiences in the field cannot be overstated. Interviews with customers and conversations with salespeople have played an important part of my continuing education and my ability to make more strategic recommendations.

After all of my travels, here are five tips for anyone who wants to better understand their customers and with whom they are communicating.

Tip 1: Get your hands (and feet) dirty
While you may not have an opportunity to perform the work done by a customer, such as operating a piece of equipment or installing a new landscape, don’t hesitate to ask for opportunities to visit customers in their natural settings. Rather than doing a phone interview with a customer, if it is possible, get in your vehicle and drive to the jobsite, business or farm. Lace up your boots and walk through a cattle barn, for example. Take in the sights and smells of what it is like to be in your customer’s shoes. Ask customers how they spend their day; what challenges they face; their dreams and hopes for the future; and what they like to do for fun. Make it a conversation and not just an interview.

Tip 2: Do a ride-along
There is a phrase that I heard many years ago, and I like to use it when I am describing some of the informal research I have done during my time with Two Rivers Marketing. It’s called windshield time — time spent riding along with a salesperson to gain a better understanding of how they spend their day; what marketing tools are effective in their sales efforts; what they do that makes them successful; how they prefer to be communicated with; and the list goes on and on. Much like when you visit a jobsite, when you spend time in a pickup truck, you can glean information that you just can’t find anywhere else.

Tip 3: Make a dealer visit
If your organization has independent dealers that sell your product, make time to visit one or more of them. Here is a sample checklist for your visit:
• Walk around their facility, inside and out, and make notes about how your client’s products are featured
• Pay attention to how printed materials are organized and what signage is visible
• Sit at a parts or rental counter and just listen to an interaction between a customer and the dealership employee
• When there is an opportunity, visit with a variety of dealership employees about their jobs, what they like about working there, how they interact with customers, and what suggestions they have for helping sell your product

Tip 4: Ask for training opportunities
We often have an opportunity to participate in hands-on training opportunities. For example, one manufacturer provides in-person presentations and demonstrations, as well as operation time for its dealerships and their sales specialists. I have been fortunate enough to attend several of these training sessions More hints. It allowed me to not only increase my knowledge and stick time in the seat of equipment, but I got to know many more salespeople who later I could call when I needed some help to find a particular customer quote for a story. When these opportunities present themselves, don’t just sign up … jump at the opportunity to participate!

Tip 5: Step outside of your trade show booth
In my industry, winter is trade show season. Many a winter day, I have found myself standing in a booth in a convention center for hours and hours — and it’s one of my favorite things to do. Why? Because when I’m there, I’m in direct contact with people who are passionate about their companies and their equipment. They come into the booth to share their stories. They may not know it, but they just participated in a one-on-one, informal research survey. I tuck those nuggets of wisdom away until a future planning meeting when I can offer some insight about what customers are saying about their equipment.

In addition, get outside of your trade show booth, when time permits, to walk around the show. See what other companies are doing to drive traffic to their booth. Sit in on a seminar or two to listen to topics that are important to your client’s customers. Just watch how trade show attendees interact inside booths, and what they pick up (and what they don’t).

If there is one valuable lesson that I can share with any of my colleagues or associates in the field of public relations and communications, it is that listening is the key to learning. Take advantage of every opportunity available to listen to your different audiences, then bring that research back to the office and apply it in everything from annual plans to everyday communication.

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About Ryan Johnson

Ryan is a PR pro, with an earned accreditation in public relations. He’s a senior public relations supervisor who specializes in copywriting, media relations, and custom publishing. You can pick Ryan’s brain on custom content at