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Three reasons why Customer Closeness doesn’t routinely happen in organisations and how to fix it

Why doesn’t Customer Closeness routinely happen in organisations? Without customers, businesses are nothing, their very raison d’etre ceases to be, and yet so few businesses really take the time to truly understand their customers.

Often, it’s only employees in customer-facing roles who have a true sense of who customers are, like the check-out staff in supermarkets, the engineers who fix customers’ boilers or the people who deal with customers’ queries. Whilst these staff can make a huge difference to customers’ experience that day, they aren’t generally in a position to make the medium or long-term decisions that drive the culture and direction of the business. Those who are, are usually locked away in offices and meetings, with very little true understanding of the real, everyday lives, needs and wants of their customers. Why is this?

Well, in my experience there are three key reasons:

  1. Complacency - employees often think they know their customers but are really languishing under misconceptions, driven by false perceptions, stereotypical assumptions and the instinctive tendency to generalise others from ourselves. The Brexit and Trump phenomena have shown us that we live in social bubbles, unable, or at best resistant, to putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. If David Cameron had had a better understanding of the attitudes and lives of large sections of British society, would he have called the Referendum in the first place?! Instead he thought he could second-guess the outcome based on a series of false assumptions.

  1. Distraction – even with the best intentions of getting closer to customers, it is easy for this to get forgotten when focusing on the day job. The myriad demands of deadlines, logistics and meetings mean the most important element of the business – the customer! – often gets forgotten. This is more the case today than ever, with stress and pressures in the workplace at record highs. Years ago, I set up a qualitative readers’ panel for a large book publisher, where readers gave personal, heart-felt and detailed feedback on different books and authors each month. Highly useful as this insight was, it was often overlooked in the logistical rush to publication.

  1. And finally, there is fear! Employees are often nervous about the idea of direct contact with customers. Careful context-setting, good discussion materials and professional facilitation are often needed to make people feel comfortable interacting with real, live customers. Fear of being seen to ‘waste valuable BAU time’ also stops staff spending time listening to what customers want. Companies where this is championed and role-modelled from the top are often the most successful at building customer instinct.

British Gas’ MD, Mark Hodges, regularly makes time to hear direct from customers past and present, and so do his Leadership Teams. BG also offer ‘open to all’ events for Head Office staff so that across the business people hear the same themes and priorities. Making time to spend with customers is an accepted part of the culture.

It leads to decisions that reflect the customer not the competition. It’s no coincidence that British Gas has recently addressed themes which we hear about from customers across many sectors: fairness – whether existing or new, all customers have access to the same offers; value: when Big Six energy companies raised prices recently, BG froze theirs; loyalty – BG’s Energy Rewards scheme which launches in April recognises time with BG.

The truth is, even in our Post-Truth environment, that when you dedicate time and energy to coming face to face with real customers, especially those very different to ourselves, it is difficult to ignore their views.

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