Groucho Marx may have had it right when it came to club membership. Well, he may not have had it right, but at least he was funny.

When it comes to the business relationship, specifically the customer relationship, it's another story entirely. All other things (like product quality) being equal, my interest in working with a company is in direct correlation to their interest in having me as a customer. You say you try harder? That works for me. Prove it and I'm yours.

One side effect of my over-active brain (I'm always thinking deeply about something else, especially as I pour motor oil into the gas tank) is that it also comes with a need to be heard. Thoughts bounce around in my brain like pong (remember that?) until I let them out. I try to let out only the good ones. But at the end of the day, I have an intense need to be heard. When I was young, my grandmother explained it as "being the only 5 year old with an opinion on everything"; grandpa just called me "motor mouth".

In fact, I find that when I can let people I work with know about this need to be heard, it really helps build relationships. I like to throw ideas out, debate, see what works. The alternative is obsessing on "what if" and that just doesn't work for me.  The goal at the end of the day is a better work product.

When it comes to new product development, listening to customer feedback is the most important thing you do. There are a lot of other things you can mess up and still survive, but if you don't gain the hearts and minds of your customers, none of that other stuff matters. It can take a while to get there, especially when your product serves multiple customer segments with conflicting needs. But at the end of the day, listening in earnest can not only help you gain needed insight but can also generate a ridiculous amount of good will with customers. And if the customer is me, I will practically want to hug you (and I'm not a hugger).

Today, I had lunch with Marc (the CEO), DeWayne and Rohan from TheLadders. They were in town for some meetings and invited me to lunch. I believe I mentioned before what a big fan I am of the company. They took the whole job posting board equation and they flipped it. Employers post for free and candidates/job seekers pay for a subscription (I don't remember how much it is but it's not expensive). My main contact at TheLadders, Michael, has always offered to give my feedback to their product development team and has often said the magic words "we'll get that into the feature queue for the next release" (or something to that effect).

So when I arrived at lunch with my "wish list" of product features, imagine my pleasure when the person that pulled out a piece of paper and started taking notes was their CEO. Many tools that recruiters use, they use because they have sunk dollars into them. With a free-to-employer tool like TheLadders, the cost is my time. The more their team satisfies my need to be heard with regard to product features, the larger my perceived investment in TheLadders (see how loyalty snowballs?). Of course none of this would matter if we weren't making hires through TheLadders (and we are making hires).

I'm not sure if Marc & Co. have thought about the listening x time = customer loyalty thing. It feels like they just want to produce the best product possible (to both employers and $100K + job seekers) and that means talking to people. On this side of the customer relationship, though, the combination of customer focus and humility makes me a fan....and a customer.

I'm pretty conservative when it comes to endorsing other companies. I think you do that too much and people become immune to it. They stop seeing you as a credible influence. If everything is great, what is your standard?

At the same time, having had such positive interactions with TheLadders team has turned me into a customer evangelist. Lucky for TheLadders, I am a customer evangelist with a blog. And a little open time on my calendar this afternoon.