One of the biggest challenges in creating the company-wide business perspective of being a value delivery system is to help all the employees understand what value means to the intended customer. If your strategic perspective is product leadership, it’s relatively easy to have anyone in your company try your software and try your competitor’s software. That’s because the product is internal and you’re in direct control of the strategic focus.
As we’ve suggested in previous posts, value is the collection of user experiences and by definition, it occurs outside of the physical or virtual walls of your company. To understand the value you want to provide, you have to understand what your intended customer is trying to accomplish, what’s important to them, and what challenges they have along the way. If you’re one of the lucky ones who gets to visit customers on site, this isn’t too hard. Sales people, product managers and customer support personnel have the opportunity to observe the customer in their “native” environment and spend time with them face-to-face.
But what about employees in other functions who don’t have the opportunity to get out and meet the customers? If you work in HR, accounting or engineering for example, your opportunities to visit customer sites are limited. Second or third hand reports just aren’t very satisfying or informative. How many of you have read trip reports written by someone else who has visited a
customer? In many cases, these degenerate into a list of complaints or product enhancement ideas the author heard from the customer. It’s not a very effective way of developing deep insights or empathy for the customers’ situation.
One of the best alternatives I’ve seen is organizing meetings when a customer comes to your offices on business. Of course you don’t want to interfere with the primary objectives of the visit, but with some advanced planning, you can schedule informal gatherings between the customer and representatives of different functional groups. These tend to work best when they are unstructured, open dialogs where the attendees feel free to ask questions and the customer can describe what’s on the top of their mind. The subjects covered could include specific challenges, recent successes, concerns, or industry trends. A skilled moderator can help keep the discussion focused on the customer’s situation and steer away from trite questions such as “What features do you want in the next release of the software?” or “Wouldn’t yo  like it if we added feature xyz to our product?”
There are many benefits to these meetings. First they provide balance to the internal perspective that most of your employees are enmeshed in daily by getting exposure to the world of your customers and what they do. It humanizes the problem and is motivating for employees. They get to hear what the customer thinks and is trying to accomplish. In many cases, the customer will be flattered by the interest the company shows in his/her problems which will increase customer loyalty. Finally it makes it easier to innovate. Instead of just programming a feature described in a document with little context, employees are better able to understand the problem to be solved and can approach the challenge with a broader perspective and hopefully propose a higher value and unique solution.

Besides spending time with customers visiting your office, what other ways have you brought the outside-in perspective to those who don’t get out much?
I was reading a study on analytics by Accenture last week and found some statistics that didn’t add up for me. According to some recent research, 55% of executives rated their ability to target customers and provide them relevant experiences as either “ideal” or “very good”. My immediate reaction was that this number seemed unrealistic. Another statistic in the report confirmed my suspicions. Only 21% of consumers believe the companies they choose to do business with are good at providing them with tailored, relevant experiences.

This is quite a difference of opinion. Over half the CEOs think their companies are very good at delivering relevant experiences but only 1 in 5 consumers think they are. Because the consumer is the ultimate judge of the quality of the experiences, I conclude that the CEOs don’t have a realistic assessment of the situation. What accounts for the discrepancy?
I found some other statistics that give us some insight. When asked what resources senior managers used when making decisions about what their customers want, the most common response was personal experience. That makes sense. There’s nothing like being on site with customers, seeing their environment first-hand and using all your senses to really understand the customers’ situation and problems. But how often does this happen?
I couldn’t find a comprehensive study on the amount of time CEOs spend with customers but I ran across an anecdote about AG Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble. You’d assume a B2C company like P&G would invest heavily in understanding the customer up close and personal but Lafley reinstituted consumer home visits and store visits for himself and his senior
executives after discovering that P&Gs product managers spent on average only three percent of their time in contact with end consumers. Personally, I’ve observed very few CEOs that spend much time with customers or when they do it’s to calm down an irate client or to help a salesman close a large order. It’s rare a CEO will take the time to just listen in order to understand what his/her company could be doing better.
So here’s my summary. CEOs think they’re doing a much better job than their customers do based primarily on their personal experience from very little customer interaction. Andy Grove said only the paranoid survive. That implies the isolated and complacent have the odds stacked against them. It doesn’t seem like a very solid foundation on which to understand and deliver value.