There is something about the essential human-ness of businesspeople spending time with consumers that is powerful. It makes businesspeople make changes; remove barriers and overcome hurdles that had become seemingly unquestionable constraints of the business.
In businesses that are awash with data about customers’ every movement, why does a qualitative, statistically unrobust encounter with customers move people to action?
It’s not because meeting customers is guaranteed to get to earth-shatteringly new insights or because customers can tell you what to do with your business – you’re the experts, not them. However, time and again clients have said to me after a session with customers – ‘it’s just impossible to ignore’.
In my experience, the power lies in the five factors below …
1. Bald honesty
When customers tell you about their experiences with your brand, you are presented with the real world outcome of the decisions you’ve made about resourcing, training, infrastructure, marketing etc. etc. The softening effect of knowing about the internal constraints, concessions and competing priorities is stripped away.
You are just left with what the customer experienced, how they felt about it and you, and the decision they are likely to make next as a result.
The real world implication of your actions, and knowing that they are having an impact right now, every day, suddenly makes it feel very important and urgent to make things the best they can be.
An example of this is our work with the board of a FTSE 100 retailer. We would facilitate sessions between them and their customers every quarter. The Retail Director was sceptical that he could learn anything from customers that he didn’t already know but over time he became a regular at the sessions. Why? Because of the honesty and quality of the discussion that would happen when the customers left the room. Faced with the bald honesty of their customers, the Board cut to the chase, addressing critical issues head on in a way that simply didn’t happen otherwise.
2. Real world perspective
Typically people in businesses view their competition as others in their market – other broadband providers; other carmakers – and measure their performance against them. Consumers’ ‘market context’ is their life. They are measuring your They compare your delivery experience to Amazon’s; your customer service to John Lewis’ and your product aesthetics to Apple’s. This can make the landscape look very different and the scale of the gap often has a galvanizing effect.
Last year I was in a room with one of the UK’s biggest homebuilders and some of their homebuyers from the Midlands. The business leaders were keen to hear about how informed customers felt over the course of the home-buying experience. One homeowner explained that her toddler’s local nursery has more advanced technology than she’d had over the eight months she’d spent waiting for her half a million pound house to be built. The builder launched its online portal months later.
3. Discovering a common interest
I just generously credited people with viewing their direct competitors as their competition. Actually we all know that corporate politics creates internal competition too – when functions within the same business see fit to push their interests at the expense of others – and it can really put the brakes on business progress.
A customer’s first-hand anger, disappointment or simple apathy to your business serves to lift the sights towards a bigger, common goal. As one eBay employee said to me after spending the day with some of eBay’s most commercially valuable customers. “It’s made our business so real. I now know who I’m fighting for.”
These are the secret weapon of Customer Closeness. We are hard-wired to listen to, be persuaded by, take lessons from and remember stories. A good story doesn’t lose its value with re-telling. In fact, serial re-telling can elevate the story to legendary status and businesses need legends. Legends tell us what is right and wrong, about our values.
A great example of this is the session I was told about in which a customer told airline staff how she had flunked the ballet audition of a lifetime in Moscow because they had lost her ballet shoes. For years, lost luggage had been the business’ no 1 cause of customer dissatisfaction. The power of that story drove the business to do something about it. When a business knows the stories and values which guide it, people pull in the same direction and businesses don’t run, they fly.
5. Greater confidence
To my mind this is the most important of Closeness’ business-accelerating factors. Listening to customers regularly over time helps you develop good ‘customer instinct’. It means that when you’re sitting in a meeting and someone asks, ‘What will the customer think if we do this?’ you have an informed sense of what your different types of customer would say if they were in the room.
That informed sense breeds confidence, the confidence to make a good decision that balances customer and commercial need, without resorting to commissioning research. It means managers make more good decisions faster than they would do otherwise, and those thousands of speedy, good decisions power businesses into in the fast lane of business growth.