Listening as a Strategy

How comfortable would you be if you were asked to drop into character and be interviewed as one of your customers? You would be asked a variety of questions, including some that you’ve never discussed with that customer. Do you believe that you could answer as your customer would? It can be done. And its value is huge.

We conduct many paired interviews with our clients and with their customers. In these, we discuss the same subjects with our client that we expect to discuss with their customer. This helps to establish a baseline hypothesis for validation and it provides a great assessment of value alignment. We have found that in the majority of cases, companies have inaccurate impressions of their customers that can be dangerous to their bottom line.

Here’s a rather extreme but impactful real-life example: A client of ours had a 20-year, $50M/year relationship with a large customer, and we were asked to talk with that customer on their behalf, as part of a broader engagement to gain actionable customer insights. In order to prepare ourselves, we discussed the customer at length with our client, interviewing them as if they were the customer. This was a tough customer, we were told, that valued price and price alone. Although our client had plenty of other value to bring to this customer, we were told that this wouldn’t matter. We then spent most of a full day with the customer, discussing a broad range of subjects regarding their business – we were not there to sell. There is one quote from this customer that I will never forget: “If the only thing you present to me is your price, how can I judge you on anything else?” Our client’s pre-conceived notions about this customer had colored their thinking so heavily that they created a self-fulfilling prophesy. Once they got past this, an unexpected and incremental $50M revenue opportunity quickly materialized.

“Becoming the customer” is how we describe learning so much about your customer that you feel you could accurately represent their interests in any discussion. What are the customer’s goals? What keeps them from reaching those goals? What support systems do they have? Describe the various relevant processes in the customer’s business. What works and doesn’t work in each of them? What are the customer’s perceptions of your company and of other alternatives they have available?

These questions and others provide far more insight than a dim-the-lights experience where a company presents its wares and asks then asks them what they want. We already know what they want. Your customers want better products for free. Unfortunately, that’s not very helpful or actionable, so you need to learn far more.

Rather than asking your customers what they want, ask them what they do and how they’re impacted in their own lives. By spending a day in their lives and “becoming” these customers, you will become much better informed about how to gain their preferences over time. This type of conversation will develop true innovative insight that can lead to disruptive change.

Some of the best companies in the world listen to their customers in this way. When P&G execs travel, they regularly get off the plane and go to the home of a P&G consumer to watch how they use their products. Additionally, P&G sends new recruits to live with families in new market areas in order to understand them better. This “day in the life” experience is terrific and far better than just asking customers what they want. There are lots of ways to achieve it.

If companies such as P&G believe in listening as a strategy, could you?