“I assure you, he will ask for your thoughts and then shoot them down, mid sentence” was a comment by a manager friend from a recent conversation. His organisation had stagnated for about 5 years, numbers were low, morale was lower and the only ideas that ever saw the light if day seemed to be those unofficially categorised as “most likely to be accepted by the boss”. I smiled knowingly at the trend I had seen start years ago at a meeting where a rising star had raised an idea that was shot down, mid sentence. She soon left to become one of the most productive sector leaders in an outpost of the same company. Still the entire organisation is stuck with an interesting type of leader – good enough to be listened to, but not experienced with “out of the box” thinking.
Problems cannot be solved at the same level of thinking at which they were created, and besides, there are new problems every day – some, a repeat of what may have happened before – with slight variations. Others, entirely new. There are also problems caused by the customer’s widening perspective of what forms the baseline for acceptable service, not to mention what the competition is willing to do to meet and exceed same. From a cursory study of business history, it appears that the best performing companies tend to focus on connecting with the customer.
But it wasn’t always so as customers used to be simply satisfied with great products that were easy to use. Then the customer, wanting more than just a great product, wanted a connection. That is, they wanted to be heard, felt, and seen. They wanted to be recognised as important, and not one more sale. The CEO could no longer sit in the corner office all day managing her vast empire, or take to the skies attending yet another meeting. She had to be available to the customer, and not just the high value customer but also the mass market. This is because as organisations got larger, a bias towards high level client management was no longer effective especially if the objective was o see around the curve.
Business leaders then realised that with the help of technology, it was easier to connect with larger groups of people. And so, some took to days dedicated to open phone calls, while others chose to connect via social media. It may be that connecting with the customer through the pre-planned meetings, roundtables, and annual meetings is no longer as effective as it once was. Today’s business leaders would do well to be only a call, SMS or tweet away taking on the not-so-new challenge of connecting with the customer irrespective of the time of day.
There are the arguments that a business leader’s time with customers is best utilised if the customer is high value, and this may be true if the purpose is to preserve existing businesses and possibly grow incrementally. However, if the purpose is to get into entirely new business areas or get brutal feedback key to the future of the firm, then it might be best to go mass market. And that is the challenge; carving out time to connect with the unseen customer – the customer who may not be high value, but who’s point is still valid. The customer who’s many complaints are inversely related to her financial value to the company. It might be the employee who currently isn’t doing well on the job, but has a perspective missed by superiors. It might be the middle manager tired of pushing an idea through a rigid system and has decided to be a ‘yes man’- because life is easier that way.
As the best ideas rarely announce themselves as so, it might be reasonable to spare a thought for the unseen customer.
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