The company had suffered steady sales declines between 1990 and 1992, which forced 3M, losing money for several months, to lay off 45 people from a staff of about 330 in 1992.
But a two-pronged focused customer-oriented strategy masterminded by Managing Director Erik Moe dramatically reversed the fortunes of the company, boosting sales from $64.4 million in 1992 to $77.3 million in 1993.
The new strategy helped 3M familiarize its customers with the company's mind-boggling range of 60,000 different products from adhesives to chemicals and electronics.
First, 3M created a mini trade show geared to a single client called "customer day." It has been such an obvious and resounding success that 3M units all over Europe are lining up to follow the Swedish example.
The second, a key account system, helped deflect a major customer criticism-that 3M was too sprawling to pay attention to individual customers needs. "The purchasing director of [NV] Phillips, which was one of our major customers, called me up and said, `You people at 3M are just to complicated to deal with,'*" recalls Mr. Moe.
That conversation led to his streamlining the organization. Phillips at the time was visited by about 30 different 3M representatives. Now only one does. "We saw quite clearly that we could not continue with what we were doing," he says.
The key account system made 3M as preferred supplier by providing a range of added values to major clients and building up a partnership. "All internal employees are invited to visit major 3M customers together with our sales representative. If he or she identifies a problem, they have a responsibility to follow the problem through and provide a solution," he says.
Now, employees specializing in logistics, quality management, finance and even research and development take part in group visits to key accounts.
Mr. Moe's other idea, customer day, prompted 3M subsidiaries in Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, the Benelux countries and even the U.S. to introduce the program.
"We are growing at a rate of 20% [in sales] in a market where the economy has shrunk by about 5%," says Mr. Moe. "This shows how powerful the customer day concept can be."
Actually a mini-trade show for a single customer, the program features in-depth demonstrations and explanation of the company's services in the customer's home market tailored solely to that client.
Visitors to 3M customer days attend product demonstrations, slide shows and lectures and collect cloth bags to take home free samples and brochures.
The first full-blown customer day was held in the west coastal Swedish city of Gothenburg in October 1992. 3M had wanted to show an important customer, the Gothenburg Hospital Authority, the full range of 3M's 15,000 products offered by its 27 different divisions. Instead of inviting hospital officials to visit the company in Stockholm, however, "We decided to take the company to them," says Bjorn Humble, marketing director of 3M Svenska.
Mr. Moe and other 3M executives rented space for a full convention-style exhibit, signing up experts to give lectures in fields related to 3M businesses. Before they knew it, they had invited other customers to a second customer day. The project kept growing, and they finally decided they might as well stay a third full day in Gothenburg to present 3M to individual customers outside the healthcare sector.
As of last spring, 12 customer days have been hosted by Mr. Moe's group throughout the Nordic countries.
A typical customer day held last May in Stockholm attracted more than 1,100 visitors including marketing expert and professor Evert Gummesson of the University of Stockholm; corporate attorney Staffan Bergling, speaking about rules covering the European Union, and Toomas Kabin of the Swedish Export Council, an expert on the Baltic countries.