I regularly write articles for magazines and journals. Some of these really strike a chord, and just “work”. Here is a recent article that has been getting a lot of comment, and has been helpful to business leaders trying to cope with the economic downturn. See the original article at The Entrepreneur magazine SA, or download a PDF copy of it here.

Seeing the world through your customer’s eyes – your key to growing your business
By Dr Graeme Codrington
Entrepreneur Magazine, July 2009

In turbulent times such as these, only those companies that can prove they have real value to offer will survive. Yet, in tough times, most companies tend to focus more on their internal systems and processes than on what their customers are looking for. Seeing the world through your customer’s eyes is essential for success, especially during a downturn.

As simple and obvious as it sounds, many companies forget this basic truth. Entrepreneurs are particularly prone to shifting their attention from customers to internal systems as they grow bigger and become more established. A searching question, and some simple activities can get your company correctly focused again.

What your customers really want

The key to seeing the world through your customer’s eyes is to ask, “What do our customers do with what they buy from us?”

It might seem simple, but this question’s implications can be profound for your business. Take a moment to think about it before reading further. It’s not, “what do your customers want from you?” It’s not, “what do your customers ask you for?” It’s a question about the ultimate value your customers are looking for in your product or service. The answers might surprise you, and could change your business.

The classic case study of this is Caterpillar. As makers of large earth moving equipment, the answer to this question is obvious. Very few of their customers actually want earth moving equipment. What they want is the earth moved. Caterpillar has been able to adjust their value proposition to take advantage of this understanding of their client’s ultimate need. They offer service contracts to dig holes, move earth and whatever else their client really needs. Guaranteeing the delivery of an end product means you can sell at higher margins, and become more indispensible to your clients.

Sometimes understanding what your customers do with what they buy from you can lead you to develop an entirely new range of products or services. For example, if a company that manufactures power drills does this exercise, they will realize that almost none of their customers actually want a power tool. What they really want is a hole. It probably isn’t feasible to sell the service of drilling holes on demand (although local hardware stores might successfully offer this service), but it is possible to think about what the best technology is to make holes these days. And that happens to be a laser. Of course, that would take a significant shift for a company used to employing engineers who build better drills. Maybe they don’t want to make this shift in focus. But if they did, they could dominate their marketplace for years.

This question might also provide some amazing insights into how you package and promote your products and services, even if it doesn’t change what you sell. When Parker Pen asked themselves this question, they made a fascinating discovery. “What do customers do with the Parker Pens they buy?” It might seem obvious that they write with their pens, and it is difficult to imagine how a company can offer the service of writing for people. But actually, when they asked their customers, they were amazed to discover that the vast majority of Parker Pens are actually given away as gifts (if you own a Parker Pen, did you buy it for yourself or were you given it as a gift?). Next time you’re in a store, have a look at how Parker Pens are packaged and marketed. They are almost all pre-packaged as gifts. And they’re still best sellers.

So, what do your customers do with what they buy from you?

A Task for the Boss

This exercise can be done in your company boardroom as a brainstorm exercise, and that’s probably a good place to start. But you also need to get out and actually speak to your customers. In fact, more than that, you need to understand your customer’s businesses, so that you can work out how you can add the most value to what they do.

This might all sound obvious, but it is amazing how few businesses actually do focus on their customers in this way, especially during tough times. How much time do you and your company’s senior leaders actually spend with clients? Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric, one of the world’s largest companies, spent nearly half of his time with his customers. He literally walked around their premises and met the people who not only bought but also used the products they bought from his company. His primary focus as leader of his company was on his company’s customers. Understanding them should not be outsourced to the marketing department. It is the boss’s job.

In difficult times such as we now find ourselves in, the danger is that companies will focus mainly on their internal systems and processes, and that senior leaders will get sucked into programmes and projects. Even worse, many companies will strip costs by reducing staff, thereby reducing their capacity to service their customers. They might cut corners on the quality or consistency of their products and services, trying to cut input costs. Many will reduce the incentives they pay to their people, negatively impacting staff morale and service delivery. These strategies may appear essential for short-term survival, but they most often lead to long-term damage to the company. And they can drive customers away.

The CEO and senior leaders need to keep the focus on customers, and ensure that their staff are both incentivized and inspired to provide the type of service that will keep customers coming back again and again. This is a job that is best done from the top down.

A Task for Different People

Having said that, it is also an issue that should involve everyone at all levels of the organisation. You need to ensure that the entire company is focused on the customer. Get as many people as possible involved in thinking about the question we posed above. And make sure the answers reflect diverse views.

There’s a lot of talk about diversity these days, but many entrepreneurs focus simply on filling quotas to show their diversity credentials. The real value diversity brings, though, is having multiple worldviews dealing with your company’s issues.

Diversity is not just about outward appearances. It’s actually quite easy to create a team of people of different genders, skin colours or ages. The danger is that you inadvertently encourage them to all think the same. This is one of the most common problems I encounter when working with senior leadership teams. Very quickly, a company’s employees learn “how things are done around here”. Even the way they dress seems to conform to unwritten rules. Be careful of this type of group think.

Most company’s customers represent much greater diversity than their staff do. Make sure you include as many diverse worldviews as you can when trying to work out how to add real value to your customers. Especially consider different cultures, genders, generations, religions, lifestages, economic circumstance and ages. Also include different levels of experience within your company, making sure you have the “been there, done that” experience interacting with “brand new eyes” – your longest serving staff member and your newest employee should definitely be involved in helping you see the world through your customer’s eyes.

Brainstorming with a difference

To unlock the diverse insights of your team, you might need to use slightly different brainstorming techniques. Why not try reverse brainstorming? Change the wording of the issue you’re brainstorming from how to solve it to how to cause it. For example, when looking at a customer satisfaction problem, ask “How can we cause customers to be dissatisfied?” This might sound simple, but it often unlocks some amazing insights. It works because many people find it easier to be judgmental or analytic, particularly as these methods are widely taught within our education systems. The act of reversing the position also provides a new perspective and helps with thinking differently about a problem.

You should also try open brainstorming. The problem with brainstorming solutions is that we allocate an hour on a particular day and hope that our best ideas will somehow emerge at that specific moment in time. As your team focus on seeing the world through your customer’s eyes, you should have a brainstorming session that is not focused on any particular outcome or issue. Simply ask people to brainstorm about what they should be brainstorming about. Don’t worry if they all sit around staring at you for a few minutes trying to work out what to say. Trust the process, and wait for the good ideas to start flowing. The outcome of an open brainstorming session is to list ideas that should be unpacked, discussed and brainstormed in the future.

In fact, once you have a whole lot of good issues to deal with, you should also put up ideas boards in prominent locations in your office. Put an idea, a question or an issue on a piece of paper and stick it up on a wall. Have a few of these near each other, with pens handy. Encourage people to think about the issues over the period of a week or so, and to write up any ideas they have. Encourage – and incentivise – people to spend some time each day reading what has been written by others, and adding further thoughts and ideas. This works because we cannot script when a flash of insight will happen, and we need to give some people more time than others to come up with creative ideas.

No doubt, you have many other techniques available to generate ideas and ensure your whole team is involved. However you do it, you need to ensure that your whole team is focused on trying to understand the value you add to your customers. And don’t be scared to adjust and adapt what you do in order to respond to turbulent times and changing customers. This is key to remaining successful over a long period of time.

Dr Graeme Codrington is a business strategist, author, keynote presenter and thought leader on the new world of work. He has homes in Johannesburg and London, and presents to over 100,000 around the world every year. Contact him at [email protected]

Source: Written for Entrepreneur SA magazine, July 2009 – download PDF copy here

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