I recently heard a really intriguing story about how a massively successful and well-known online retailer conducts its meetings. The CEO reportedly ensures that there is an empty chair at the conference table when key meetings are being held. This empty chair is an important symbol—it is used as a visual reminder of the firm’s customers. Although they are physically absent, the empty chair reminds the meeting attendees to think about customers’ views, needs, wants, fears and aspirations. This straightforward but powerful gesture ensures the voice of the customer is injected into decision making, and presumably acts as a reminder to go out and consult with customers when needed. It ensures the customer is at the heart of the discussion.
There is no doubt that understanding our customer (and our customer’s customer) can help create a competitive advantage. Yet in the rush to deliver projects, orders, changes or innovation it can be easy to forget our end-customers and end-users, or make sweeping assumptions about what they will find valuable. This leads us to dangerous ground: if we fail to really understand our customers, there is the danger that we’ll try to deliver exceptional service but will unwittingly fail. We’ll go “all out” trying to delight the customer, and will be confused when rather than thanking us, they complain.
This may sound counterintuitive, so let me give you an example:
I recently ordered some custom-designed products from a supplier I’ve used a few times before. It was a repeat order, and I chose a specific delivery date. Since they can only guarantee a delivery date (not a time), I made sure that I’d be working from home on that date. The order was placed, and all was well (so far).
The supplier was keen to over-deliver and impress, and so they dispatched the product a week early. Now for many customers, this may be a benefit—but for me it was a massive inconvenience. It meant I was disturbed on vacation by a series of urgent phone calls and e-mails asking me when I’d be available to take receipt of the item. I had to remind the supplier that my requirement was to deliver on a specific date (not before, not after, but on the date).
The supplier resolved the issue quickly, but it struck me that they had no process in place to arrange delivery on a specific date—their entire process was set up to cater for customers who are happy to specify a latest delivery date (and accept that the delivery could be at any time before this). Yet I can’t believe I’m the only person who has to take time off work to wait in for deliveries? Perhaps if they surveyed their customers they’d find that by offering a “guaranteed” delivery date they would increase orders. Perhaps they would also reduce the amount of failed deliveries, re-deliveries, complaints and other types of failure demand—whilst simultaneously improving customer experience!
What this means for business and business analysis
It is very easy for our perceptions of what our customers want to be misguided or outdated. It is likely that our organisation will work with various types or segments of customers, all with varying needs and wants. A regular assessment of these needs and wants helps to keep organisations ahead.
Whether you’re a business analyst, product manager or another complementary role–and irrespective of whether you work internally for an organisation or for a vendor or managed services provider (MSP), you are ideally placed to ensure the voice of the customer is injected into changes to systems, structures and processes. It is worth asking questions like:
- What types of customers are involved with, interested in, or receive outputs from this system/process?
- What are the outcomes those customers are ultimately aiming for?
- What are our customers trying to avoid?
- Why do our customers choose us over our competitors?
- When did we last consult with our customers (or customer representatives?) Are our views up-to-date?
- What is our complaint data telling us?
- What are our customers saying about us on social media and elsewhere?
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it provides a useful starting point. And perhaps, like the online retailer I mentioned earlier, you might consider keeping a vacant chair to prompt stakeholders to ensure the customer is kept at the heart of decision making.
I hope you’ve found this article useful. Do you have any tips that help us to understand our customers? I’d love to hear from you – please add your comments below.
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This post was brought to you by IBM for MSPs and opinions are my own. To read more on this topic, visit IBM’s PivotPoint. Dedicated to providing valuable insight from industry thought leaders, PivotPoint offers expertise to help you develop, differentiate and scale your business