Sometimes the most powerful business advice is the simplest.
Businesspeople give a lot of excuses for not spending enough time with customers. Being too busy is the most common one I hear. Whenever an executive tells me that she’d love to spend more time with her customers, but she’s too busy, I ask to see her calendar for the coming month. Invariably, 50 to 70 percent of what’s scheduled could easily be considered lower priority than spending time with important customers. These people just aren’t carving out the time.
No one knows this better than customer experience expert and bestselling author Tom Connellan. One of the most powerful tools he uses with clients is the customer panel. He puts his client executives in a room with their largest customers so that the customers can give the executives feedback. He asks the customers to share the good, the bad, and the ugly—and not to pull any punches.
Having done hundreds of these panels, Connellan has noticed two overwhelming trends. One, the senior executives are always shocked and surprised by what they hear. Two, the shocking stuff is never good.
One of his best stories, that he recently recounted to me, is of a defense contractor who brought in a U.S. Navy admiral as one of its customers. Before the admiral even sat down, everyone could tell that he was in a foul mood. When it was his turn to speak, he launched right in, wasting no time with pleasantries.
“How many of you have ever been on one of my boats?” the admiral asked loudly and sternly.
None of the executives’ hands went up. The admiral surveyed the room for a few seconds and then remarked in a scolding tone, “I didn’t think so.”
Connellan could see the executives straightening up in their chairs.
“How many of you have ever been with any of my sailors?” the admiral followed up.
Again, none of the executives’ hands went up.
The admiral surveyed the room another time for effect, seemingly meeting the eyes of every single executive before saying, “I didn’t think so.”
“The U.S. Navy is one of your largest customers,” the admiral continued, “and yet none of you has ever been on one of my boats and none of you has ever spent any time with my sailors.”
For the next 10 minutes, the admiral went through a list of issues he had with the company. The headline was, the company was totally out of touch with the Navy’s needs. He made the point that one product in particular seemed to have been developed with absolutely zero knowledge of what a sailor does on a daily basis.
He finished by saying, “You’re so busy trying to sell me ‘stuff’ that you’ve forgotten that I have customers, and those are the men and women out in the fleet that are defending our country right now. If they’re happy, I’m happy. If they’re not happy, I’m not happy. You have to stop spending time schmoozing me and start spending time figuring out what they need.”
Connellan has so many stories like this that it’s scary. It’s an endemic problem throughout many organizations. Leaders at all levels don’t get out of the office and don’t have their eyes and ears on the street. Instead, they see the world through the hazy fog of their conference rooms and boardrooms. Layers of other people, who aren’t getting out of the office either, are advising them. It’s an organization-wide replication of the classic game of telephone. When it comes time to place bets on the future, these leaders are flying blind, totally out of touch with the nuances of what customers really want.
Taking the time to fill in those blind spots leads to decidedly smarter decisions.
Excerpted and adapted from Taking Smart Risks