Andrea Belk Olson headshot Andrea Belk Olson

Are you afraid of your customers?

I heard the oddest thing, and I’ve heard it multiple times over the course of my career. Companies that are afraid to ask their customers what they want. Or ask them how the organization is performing. Or involve them in a new product or service creation.

It’s quite intriguing, as a customer-centricity expert, to hear this resistance. While some claim they “already know what customers need”, an overwhelming number of our client engagements begin with the same conversations:

  • “We’ve never reached out to our customers for their feedback before.”
  • “We don’t want to bother or irritate them with surveys and questions.”
  • “We know everything we need to know.”
  • “We’ve done it in the past, and didn’t get any useful information.”

However, each of these companies was struggling in some way, whether with sales numbers dropping off, increased competitive pressures, or a lack of overall growth. They were looking for a quick, “silver bullet” solution.

The problem was that they had lost sight somewhere along the way, of the one thing that could fix all of these problems – customers. And customers were the one thing they were avoiding. Throughout years of prosperity, complacency had set in, and a chasm had begun to grow. Customer engagement or face-to-face time had been systematically pushed down the organizations to a handful of lowest-wage employees, dealing with customer questions, needs, and demands.

The last time a high-level executive had directly spoken with a customer in a transaction or engagement environment was years ago or not even at all. Customer input came in the form of high-level reports, Net Promoter Scores, and other broad KPIs. In short, the organizations had lost true connection with their customers.

It’s true that a one-time customer survey often won’t give an organization the insight they need to make a dramatic change. But that’s not the bigger purpose. It’s about the organization shifting their mindset, engagement, behaviors, and processes around the customer. This shift takes time. A survey or a focus group is simply the starting point for a transformational change.

This change is critical for one, singular goal – creating successful customers. And if the entire company isn’t invested in customer success from the outset, most customer feedback outreach falls flat. Instead of reaching out and engaging with customers consistently to truly better understand their needs and challenges, disengaged companies send out annual questionnaires and ask why they get little feedback and feel disingenuous about the process.

Those who have a little more drive may enlist the support of a consulting or research firm, to speak to customers for them, and create lengthy reports with a series of colorful charts, detailing and categorizing customer perceptions. While valuable, there’s something to be said for experiencing something first hand. Instead of immersing the organization in the ‘customer’, research is used to identify and justify often superficial tactical changes. The company’s behavior fundamentally remains the same, and the cycle recurs all over again in another year or two.

But time and time again, the most successful companies – ones that can overcome those sales and competitive challenges consistently – immerse themselves in engaging with customers at all levels across the organization. It’s fundamental to their DNA – a behavior that is fostered and encouraged throughout every level.

Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos has every new employee across all levels of the organization attend two days of call-center training. This ensures that everyone in the company is committed to listening and acting upon the needs of their customers – not just front line customer service employees.

While Amazon is one example, it takes little research to find other successful companies that carry the same customer-centric culture trait. As we come across more and more companies who are struggling and look to find a solution, we’ll continue to encourage them to build deeper and stronger relationships with their customers. Because at the end of the day, they are the source of growth and revenue.

About the Author:

Andrea Olson is a speaker, author, behavioral economics, and customer-centricity expert. As the CEO of Pragmadik, she helps organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to Fortune 500, and has served as an outside consultant for EY and McKinsey. Andrea is the author of The Customer Mission: Why it’s time to cut the $*&% and get back to the business of understanding customers and No Disruptions: The future for mid-market manufacturing.

She is a 4-time ADDY® award winner and host of the popular Customer Mission podcast. Her thoughts have been featured in news sources such as Chief Executive MagazineCustomer Experience MagazineIndustry Week, and more. Andrea is a sought-after keynote speaker at conferences and corporate events throughout the world. She is a visiting lecturer at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, a TEDx presenter and TEDx speaker coach. She is also a mentor at the University of Iowa Venture School.

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