How to Lead a Business That Truly Listens to Customers

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Most entrepreneurs and leaders acknowledge the need to be ‘customer-led’.  

A recent study showed that in some cases 82% of customers would switch product or service provider after a bad experience. 

Yet most leaders will also recognise the tendency for decisions to become at least as much about internal demands and experiences. 

For we naturally see the world from the inside out. Sales teams, driven by the need to meet inventory targets, will tend to shape long term decisions driven by ‘sell what I know has sold before’ rather than ‘find ways to create what customers need’. Marketers may tend to use the platforms and tools they know best, or that are trendy, rather than those actually used by customers. Managers may be more comfortable measuring what they understand and have seen before, rather than what might be newer, fuzzier, and more challenging. 

But very fuzzy and extremely challenging is what we face.

In this last year we’ve experienced abrupt structural changes to customer demand patterns, our ways of working, and our routes to market. We don’t yet know which aspects of these will revert to pre-pandemic ways, and which will change further. But we can be sure that what went before is less of a guide to future behaviour than at any time in our experience. 

Moreover, it becomes ever clearer that the diversity of experience of our customer base – whether that be on the basis or neurodiversity or identity – will determine their levels of uptake and loyalty.

So we must confront the inside-out thinking that leads us to listen more to our own prejudices than the needs of others. We must view what we do from an outside-in perspective and take action accordingly. How does what we do fit with the enduring need yet change the expectations of our customers? What shall we keep? What shall we change? How can we win?

Clearly this represents a leadership challenge. How do we help our teams to move beyond the comfort of their own lived experience, their own skill set, and their short-term problems, and look towards a future where so much is unprecedented and unknown? How to shape a shared approach to looking ‘outside in’. 

There is no one-sized answer. The nature and size of each organisation will determine the nitty gritty of an outside in approach. But we can at least explore some principles. 

A simple, but crucial point, is to focus on ‘enduring needs’

It’s always been important to understand what fundamentally drives demand. Business people working across multiple territories don’t ‘need’ to fly. They need to meet and communicate across multiple territories. Once they flew. Now they Zoom. Which way will they meet that enduring need in 2022?

Across most aspects of life we’ll see new perspectives applied to old ‘enduring needs’. Post pandemic, mid climate crisis, mid economic downturn… old truths will be overturned. Enduring needs will… well, endure. 

This is an ongoing process, not a one off.

Lots of people will have experienced a whole company convulsion triggered by, lets say, a new CEO, or perhaps a profits crisis, in which large scale research is undertaken, some new language for customer needs begets a funky new strategy.

Internal presentations are made, targets are set. If such ‘wham bam’ moments work at all, they don’t work for long.  And they’ll work less right now where change remains rapid and ongoing. 

Outside-in approaches require constant ‘immersion’ in customer behaviour not the one time spotlight of research. Most businesses, of course, are now replete with customer data. Being clear about how data reveals customer needs can be very important, but remember, it seldom reveals intent, or forecasts future behaviour.

Nothing beats talking to customers

Whether you speak that in person, via zoom or phone. Of course, it’s best to be structured, but more important to be actively engaging. 

Immersion thrives on whole-workforce contribution. Fostering the involvement of all makes it the responsibility of everyone. Not only will this likely gather a diversity of perspectives, but will involve everyone in implementing strategy.

Outside-in thinking requires a culture shift. But now, more than ever, it is easy to explain to people why such a shift is needed. Everyone knows that change is afoot. Whilst such change is a scary thing, it can also be the catalyst for exciting personal development. Perhaps this, above all, is the leadership challenge of our time. Making listening to our customers part of a thrilling journey to success for each and everyone of the organisation, rather than the job of the market research department.

This leadership behaviour is a way of ‘being’. Leaders must be able to create environments of deep curiosity. They will need to role model excellent levels of listening and empathy. Their behaviours must demonstrate that they hold customers in the highest positive regard. Leaders should be adept at creating climates where their colleagues behave in a similar way if an organisation is truly “customer-led”.

Above all, and as with most things in life, we must trust and be open to other ways than our own. 

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