Did you see the Warriors/Cav’s game? Can you believe this weather? What did you get on problem number 4? Any plans for the weekend? What’s your major? Or the Granddaddy of them all, What’s your sign?
Long ago when we were trying to date, we learned that you had to try to engage your date in conversation. Get him or her to talk about themselves. Some people suggest that you apply the same advice to business. That if you can get your customer to talk about themselves you will learn everything that you need to know. It’s good advice for dating, but terrible advice for running a business.
For the last 4 months I have written about the 5 C’s of entrepreneurship. The first 3 were: Conscious, Curious and Creative. Today, we will talk about being customer focused.
Many people think of being customer focused as giving the customer lots of ways of interacting with you. Returning emails, holding focus groups, talking to them in your stores or call centers, doing surveys…. In essence listening to your customer.
It’s not that those things aren’t important, it’s that those things are a small part of the answer. They are only one input into the decision making process.
Being customer focused as an entrepreneur means “being the customer”. Literally understanding exactly what the customer is going through. It’s listening, empathy, caring and passion all rolled into one. The passion to solve the customer problems because you have the same problems.
The best way to describe this is with an example. The first company that I was part of the founding team was Streamline. Steamline was a consumer direct company that delivered a whole range of goods and services directly into the home; Groceries, dry cleaning, video rentals, prepared meals, pet food and lots of other stuff on a weekly scheduled basis. We focused our business on what we called “Busy Suburban Families.” We had one key a rule. If you were a director or above, you had to be a customer. Every other employee was also encouraged to be a customer but at the director level it was required. But unlike most companies, you didn’t get any special pricing or discounts. You paid exactly what our customers paid.
The reason for all of this was that we wanted you to understand exactly what it was like to be a customer. What it was like at 10:00 at night to place your order. What happened when you came home from work and opened your bins and god forbid your dinner wasn’t there. What happened when you looked at your bills at the end of the month. You had to understand at the personal level if we were delivering on the value promise that we made and how critical every thing we did was to satisfying that customer. We went so far that when we hired a new web development firm that was outside of our trade area we set up a new delivery route just for them so that they could experience the service that they were building the website for. We were customer focused because we were all customers.
Above my desk in Needham sits a 4” section of a carpenter’s ruler. It is mounted on a black piece of cardboard. It was given to me to remind me of the 4” rule. You see a friend went to the grand opening of a bike superstore that he had invested in. The place was amazing. Indoor riding track, shelves stocked with all of the best merchandise and not a thing out of place. Nirvana for the bike enthusiast. Everyone was anticipating the grand opening the next day. After the tour they were told that they could shop so he decided to buy a basket for his granddaughters bike. He tried and tried but couldn’t figure out what he needed. Pricing was confusing, and trying to figure out if it would fit the bike was impossible. At 4 feet away the store looked great. When he became a customer and got to within 4” the store was a disaster. It closed within 6 months. They weren’t customer focused. You have to view everything that you do from the viewpoint of the customer – from 4”.
Bottom line is being customer focused is about truly understanding what the customer is going through. Getting into their shoes to understand how they want to interact with your business and what the challenges are. Although this is not the most important characteristic that an entrepreneur has, it is the single biggest reason that the entrepreneur can compete with the established big guy. The entrepreneur doesn’t have the policies, procedures, and systems that the big company does which keep them from behaving as the customer wants. The startup can build their company to exactly match what the customer wants.
It’s that focus that builds fortunes.