Is Your Customer In EVERY Meeting?

A few weeks back, as I was consolidating offices, I began looking at some of the books on my bookshelf (and in the stacks on the floor and windowsills). While I have any number of recently published books, the ones I was drawn to were ones older ones with themes that seemed particularly suited to another look in the context of today’s environment. Over the next few days I thought it would be useful to re-examine some of these “classics”.

Every year brings a changing landscape of business books. However, certain themes seem evergreen. While the tools or platforms for execution change, these timeless subjects seem to feel more like business success truisms every year. Three of these themes are the subjects of my current attention. They are customer-focus, trust, and storytelling. Today we will start where every successful business starts…with the customer.

Over a decade ago Richard Whiteley and Diane Hessan wrote Customer Centered Growth As a full disclaimer, they were my bosses at the time. The book covers five strategies for building competitive advantage. While all of these strategies start with the customer, the one that prescribes “hardwiring the voice of the customer” into your organization is of special interest today. While the chapters on this strategy cover the usual suspects of data collection, such as focus groups and surveys, they also include other sources of data with a now prescient note to “be open to the incoming and the informal”.

With the “lean start-up” model grabbing headlines (this Sunday’s NYT article as example) by professing its allegiance to customer feedback as the basis for its product development and business model, it is remarkable to me how this core tactic has not changed for successful companies, and yet is all too often ignored by well-funded companies. Obviously, the tools for executing this strategy have dramatically improved. With twitter, facebook and a multitude of other technologies now widely available, a company no longer has to wait for angry e-mails or call center reports to know what’s not working. But at its root, the message is the same. Putting customers in the center and making sure your organization, no matter how big or small, is listening and reacting to what they tell you is a winning strategy. Diane believed in this concept so much she went out and founded a company focused on helping companies do this called Communispace.

To this day when I am working with a company of any size and we are discussing growth strategies I require the customer to be “in the room”. This may take the form of research, twitter stream, discussion boards or even actual users. Whatever the case a strategy crafted with the customer in absentia is bound to be less successful than one where they are at the table.

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