Your Day Job: Get Out of the Building and Talk to Customers

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Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Alex Osterwalder, lead author of Business Model Generation and Value Proposition Design and founder of Strategyzer, about the importance of getting senior leaders to model and embrace the innovation process.

Alex and I share a passion for helping business leaders learn that innovation is not a one-time investment for a select few, but rather is a new discipline of leadership mindsets, skills, and tools that can and should be employed at all levels of the organization.

Senior leaders need to model customer oriented behaviors in order to set the tone and the culture for their organization. They must show that they are comfortable with the tools and processes needed for innovation, including testing and experimentation, before they can delegate “innovation” to their people. Otherwise, there is a message and reality gap between what they say they care about and even what is stated in the company’s mission statement, and what they actually do.

Below are some themes from our conversation, and some additional ways that senior leaders can get started working this way immediately.

You Must Know Your Customers Intimately

The key to staying relevant and being clear about what your company stands for in terms of creating real value for your customers is knowing those customers intimately. That doesn’t happen when you’re stuck inside, reading org charts and reports. It happens when you go out and have live interactions in an on-going way – not just a one-time focus group.

You must build in the discipline and the constant renewal of understanding of what your customers need from you. Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, is famous for regularly joining experience designers on home visits to observe firsthand how their members use the product in the context of their everyday life. Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and Square, takes the bus and works as a cashier in the company café so that he stays directly connected to the realities and daily context of his users’ and employees lives.
Without this continual investment in outside-in investigation, senior leaders tend to get very excited by their existing strategies and the more they stay in the building, the more they get biased confirmation that the work that they are doing is the right work. It soon becomes more about defending what they did and they have been doing.

By depending only on their direct reports, the information they receive is going to be biased – mostly by good news and what they already know how to do. This can be particularly exacerbated when a company is business-to-business. In this case, senior leaders tend to know the business they are selling to but are not actually familiar with their end user customers. As a result they don’t know how to create real value for some of the customers that matter most.

You Must Be in a Constant Discovery Mindset

Instead, you need to be in a constant discovery mindset. Only by getting out and seeing exactly how customers are interacting with your products can you understand what their pain points are and what actually delivers true value to them.
This reminds me of a wonderful book written by Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question. In it, he argues that we need to support the rise of the curious leader and we need to get leaders comfortable asking different types of questions. Not, “does our product work or not work?,” but “why does it work?” and “how could we see and imagine serving our customers differently than we do now?” Those are fundamentally different questions to help us understand the value we are adding with our products and where they are deriving value.

Ask Open-Ended and Curious Questions

It’s critical to protect space and time to observe what your customers are doing. Be willing to have an open mind and ask yourself, “I wonder why they did it that way?” Ask customers, “why did you do that? what was the outcome you were hoping for? how does that help you do your job?”

This requires being truly curious about the answers. This isn’t a ‘check the box’ exercise used to confirm what you are already doing. It requires being in the world of the unknown, which is inherently uncomfortable. Not many executives say, “I really love not knowing the answer,” so we have to understand that this can be both a difficult and a vulnerable place to be. Particularly for those at the top of an organization that others are looking to for a vision and the answers.

Discovery is the key to mastering understanding of your customers and ultimately how and why what you’re offering is relevant to their lives. If you feel like you’ve lost touch with your customers, here are two ways to get started immediately.

  • Ask an account manager to accompany him or her on an upcoming customer meeting. Rather than go in to the meeting with a prepared sales pitch, instead come in with a list of open-ended questions that will help you learn more about how your company’s offering is used in his or her life. The key here is to listen and ask questions. Consider starting the How many coffees did you drink with your customers?Coffee Challenge to get other senior leaders to join the effort too. How many cups of coffee can you have in 1 week’s time?
  • Use the Customer Journey Canvas found in the Design a Better Business book to map key moments and touch points with a customer. Try to understand the gap between what you think your offering does and how and when it actually serves their needs.

Stay tuned for more blogs on how to put these practices into action.

In the meanwhile, we’d love to hear what you do to stay curious and connected to your customers.
Let us know by joining the conversation.

By Lisa Kay Solomon - Author

A passionate design strategist and executive educator, Lisa creates immersive leadership experiences at the MBA in Design Strategy at the California College of Arts and Singularity University. She is the coauthor of the bestseller Moments of Impact.