In the movie The Sixth Sense, the young boy whispers, “I see dead people”. Well, I listen to smart people. I learn a lot that way. And when a large number of smart people agree on a subject and say it’s their highest priority, I really pay attention.

For example, I recently read the 2010 IBM Global CEO Study. For this research, they interviewed over 1,500 CEOs representing 33 industries from 60 countries. The report is divided into three major themes: embody creative leadership, reinvent customer relationships, and build operating dexterity.  The study finds that customer intimacy is foremost on CEOs’minds. Eighty-eight percent of all CEOs, and an astounding 95 percent of standouts, picked getting closer to the customer as the most important dimension to realize their strategy in the next five years.

I find that statistic quite remarkable. They didn’t say get more innovative or get leaner. Hiring smart people or outperforming the competition didn’t end up on top. They took a very external, outside-in view and said they have to get closer to the customer.

To explore what they mean by getting closer, when asked how their customers’ expectations of them would change in the next five years:
82% of CEOs expect that customers will demand a better understanding of their needs,
70% said customers will expect new or different services,
69% said customers will expect more collaboration, information sharing, and
61% said customers will expect new or different products.

Notice that new or different products came out in fourth priority. I bet this is a surprise to many who believe that the key to business success is offering new and different products.  The study noted a significant change in customer relations from previous years. “In the past, they told us they needed to be closer to customers; today they need to go much further and bring customers inside their organizations. These CEOs are convinced they must not only stay connected (or reconnect) with customers, but keep on learning how to strengthen those bonds.”

In my next post, I’ll explore what how CEOs plan to strengthen those bonds and get closer to their customers.

(To obtain a copy of the complete report and access complementary resources,
visit http://www-935.ibm.com/services/us/ceo/ceostudy2010/index.html)