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Stop Assuming You Know Your Customers, Start Listening To Them!

by David Brock on January 9th, 2009
Thanks to one of Fred Wilson’s recent posts, I discovered Whitney Hess, a user experience designer in New York. She was quoted: “In order to survive, companies have to stop assuming they know their customers and start listening to them.” Simple and profound.

I spend a lot of my time with business, marketing, and sales executives. Many espouse being customer focused. Many are making good strides, but in my experience we have a long way to go.

Whitney’s comment got me thinking. Why is it so difficult to listen to our customers? Why is it so difficult to engage our customers in a different conversation?

These are not new concepts, but why is it so difficult to execute?

I’m not sure I have a lot of insight into these issues, but I have some ideas — by the way, I’d welcome yours.

1. We have met the enemy and it is us! Most of the organizations I work with are filled with brilliant, creative people. People who have accomplished a lot and produces results. Sometimes, however, this creates an arrogance that we know more and better than anyone else. We stop listening and start telling. The challenge comes when they — the customer — stop listening to what we are telling them, Usually they stop listening because we really don’t understand them and are not producing value.

2. We’ve stopped seeing the forest because we are focusing on the tree! (Not the trees, but THE tree.) People develop a selective listening. We’ve succeeded in becoming focused and goal directed, but that may leave us blind to what is really being said. We focus on The tree, Our tree, and ignore the neighboring trees and forest. Except those may be more important to the customer or create new opportunities for us.

I’ll linger on this point a little. One of my clients has very good product managers. They come from the industry—many are former customers. They engage customers in deep conversations about technologies and their needs. The problem is, they are engaging in talking to a specific group of customers—specialized technicians. These technicians important in providing infrastructure to support the business but they aren’t driving the business. They only respond to the needs of the business users. My client would do well to expand their view to include the business users, understanding their needs and drivers, along with those of the technical users. They will discover new opportunities—new trees.

3. Our mother’s taught us not to talk to strangers! Good advice when we were kids, but now it is too limiting. If we only talk to our friends, if we only do assessments of our own industry, if we only track and respond to competitors, we narrow, blind and inbred. We don’t get to see and experience new things. Our strategies become incremental, not game changers. We continue to exchange places with our competitors for superiority, yet each evolve slowly and are probably not seeing and creating breakthrough opportunities for our customers and ourselves.

I spend much of my time working with top executives in high technology B2B organizations. At the same time, I also do work in certain niches of the fashion/lifestyle industries. I am always struck by the innovation, creativity, and some of the business models I see in the fashion/lifestyle sector — mostly because some of them have so much potential when applied to high tech B2B! I don’t have to be smart, insightful or innovative, I just have to learn how to adapt these creative ideas to a different set of circumstances and industry.

4. We’ve lost the art of having conversations. We focus on the pitch —- What’s your elevator pitch? Let’s go pitch the customer! Even in this day of Zen Presentations, we focus on the pitch, on presenting, on talking, on winning a one sided argument.

Where do we talk about listening? How do we develop the ability to have a good “elevator listen?”

Actually, it goes beyond listening — it’s establishing a conversation or a dialog. It’s about engaging the people we are with. It’s about learning something new, realizing we might have to change our position. It’s about challenging our own and other’s ideas and positions. It’s about having a healthy debate and maybe some conflict — all oriented around creating better solution — for our customers, for our businesses.

I could go on, but will stop here. I owe a big thanks to Whitney for her insightful comment: “In order to survive, companies have to stop assuming they know their customers and start listening to them.”

I’d love to get your ideas — perhaps we can start a conversation!

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  1. I really like this, you wrote “The challenge comes when they — the customer — stop listening to what we are telling them, Usually they stop listening because we really don’t understand them and are not producing value.”
    So many times I hear folks who are market analysts speaking of this or that – about customers – yet they are so far off from the “average person” they are analyzing it’s not even funny to start comparing their “view” with the reality that exists.. When we start getting good at what we do and rising in the ranks – we sometimes forget to stay in touch with our customer base – that can make all the difference in the world as to whether we are retaining or turning away customers.

    Social Media Magic

    • Kimberly, thanks for the comment. Sometimes we think we are producing “value,” when we really aren’t. Sometimes we get removed from what really drives the customer. It gets back to really listening and hearing—sometimes we forget.

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