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Sure, I got a new hat on vacation - but I still want one from the Flagg Ranch!

I was down in Washington DC a couple of weeks ago, and what I discovered there was nothing short of amazing. Now, I hadn’t actually  been in DC for a number of years, so as part of a vacation down south, my wife and I thought it would be nice to spend a couple of nights in town and show the kids the Mall and see the cherry blossoms.  It was a good move.

The amazing part?  Well, we were driving, so even if you stick to the main roads, you can still get a general sense of the tenor of the country.  New York, Jersey, Delaware, Maryland – they all had a sort of sort of subdued movement to them.  Clearly, the economy has stabilized , and everything had a sort of steady workmanlike sensibility to it.  It ain’t great, but it ain’t horrible either.

Until we reached the dreaded Beltway, which we crossed and headed into the center of town.  That’s when I discovered  they’ve got a secret, deep in the heart of our nation’s capital! All of our camera-savvy political ‘leaders’, well positioned for the press conference and with crocodile tear sincerity and artificial empathy (either side of the aisle, mind you), well, now I know that they’ve been holding out!

“Yes, yes” you say, “We know that they’re slippery and can’t be trusted.  But what’s the amazing part? What’s the secret?”

The Amazing part, the Secret is this: it’s Booming in Washington DC.  Not merely healthy, not stiff-upper-lip positive – no, positively BOOMING!

Everywhere you look, cranes, new construction.  Low unemployment, housing – yes HOUSING reports annual real estate valuations continuing to rise over 4% annually.  It’s an absolute, amazing wonderland of prosperity, clean streets and the nicest subways I’ve ever ridden on.

All within the tight little world of the Beltway though, admittedly, such a breadth of prosperity cannot be held in forever by the girth-restrictions of the Beltway, so like the effects (http://youtu.be/BlK62rjQWLk) of ‘just a little bit more’ on Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote (“It’s wafer thin, monsieur…”), there is, indeed, a bit of spillover.  Into Northern Virginia, where no one should bother to own a car.

But that’s it: Wonderland within the Beltway, and a somewhat stable though colorless existence without.

So, what’s my point?  Well, I’ll posit that if these politicians who assess and make recommendations, policies and laws for our country are looking from within this wonderful belt-bubble and, when they view the reality of their kingdom, well, I dare say that they’re perception is a bit skewed.

You see, if everywhere I look everything’s wonderful, even if some cold stream of data suggests otherwise, as a human being I tend to be effected by what I experience.  So, individual political motives aside, the policies which I champion have little to do with the reality on the street, and across the country.

None of this, of course, is anything new.  But, case in point, I had both heard of and suspected that this were the case – that there’s a disconnect between our elected officials (note, I did not say leaders) and the people who elected them (note, again, that I did not say the people who they serve).

The thing is, it didn’t hit home for me until I was on the ground within the environment. Data, phone conversations and conjecture are not a substitute for being in the physical environment for a period of time. That’s how you can really get a sense of the situation (and, no, the occasional political photo-opp of a politician in shirt sleeves touring a factory in Detroit is not a substitute for the real thing.  The get back on the private plane and go back to Nirvana).

So what’s the point, other than that our policymakers are wholly disconnected from the populace?  Well, there is something to take away that might even be constructive for your business.

Go see your customers and clients. Spend time with them, and within the environment in which they live and interact on a day to day basis.  Awhile back, someone in a business similar to my own asked what kind of form I used to get to know new clients.  What I sent to them, via email, to get to know them and their businesses.

After the spit-take, I gently explained that there is no such form.  And there is no substitute, even in in data driven age, for time on the ground and personal contact.

Me, I use my client’s products whenever possible: I make sure that I’m their customer, so I can see what it’s like to be their customer. Then I can make real and effective recommendations.  And when I can’t use their products, I make sure to show up, often unannounced, to find out what’s going on and take an accurate temperature reading of the business.

There is no substitute for this. It’s the only way to make real and effective assessments, from which you can make real and effective suggestions, or even policies.

Get out, put boots on the ground.  Meet, talk to and shake hands with your customers (or constituents) on a regular basis.  Do what they do, use what they use, read body language, listen to the ambient sounds to which they’re exposed.  Inhabit their point of view for awhile. Don’t just read data or rely solely on metrics.

Those things are only numbers.  Instead, do your best to immerse yourself in the reality of your customers.  Then you can do what needs to be done, because your foundational viewpoint – your perception – is spot on.

Think of it as loosening your Beltway.