You Are Not Your Customer

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Do not assume that you and your customers are all that similar, writes Brooke Niemiec.
Do not assume that you and your customers are all that similar, writes Brooke Niemiec. Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Most business books will tell you that the secret to success is grounded in becoming a customer of your own products and services. Put yourself in customers' shoes to see how they interact with your product and what the overall experience feels like. The main idea is that being a good customer will make you a good leader.

That idea is wrong.

All too often, leaders think that their personal experiences with their brand are accurate reflections of all customers' experiences with their brand. They make decisions based on what would personally make them happier, and focus on details of the experience that matter to them. In doing so, however, they forget that many (if not most) customers have different needs, interests and experiences.

There's an innate danger in being your own customer, from wasted resources to unhappy customers. Of course, being your own customer doesn't have to be a bad thing, as long as you find ways to avoid "customer tunnel vision." Here are a few tips from our recently published book, "Geek Nerd Suit: Breaking Down Walls, Unifying Teams, and Creating Cutting-Edge Customer Centricity."

Build a customer dashboard
Instead of relying on your own experiences, create a dashboard that objectively captures the experience of all of your customers. Dashboards can include everything from brand-tracking results, to online profile summaries, to social listening centers. Obviously, you must decide what makes the most sense for your business, but make sure the data is current, and train the decision-makers so the dashboards become something they reference on a regular basis.

Get out on the front line
What's better than monitoring what is happening with customers? Interacting with them directly. Every leader should find time, at least once a month, to interact with customers -- in stores, through the call center, or as part of customer research. Interact directly. It's one thing to paint a picture of a customer in your head, but it's another to be able to recall a specific set of interactions with customers whose names you will remember. The only caution here is to make sure that you don't extrapolate a small number of interactions to your entire customer base.

Hire your customers
Another way to get close to your customers is to hire them. Those folks will have an incredibly broad set of customer interactions to draw from, and that experience is an asset. At one retail gaming chain, virtually every employee is also a gamer, and it's obvious to their customers that they share a passion for their products. But it doesn't stop there. The most successful in-store managers can often be incredibly successful in the corporate ranks, in part due to their ability to bring the customer perspective closer to company leadership.

Bust a myth
If you find yourself leaning too heavily on a specific example or area of focus, it can be a healthy exercise to try to prove yourself wrong. Evaluate some of your "commonly held truths," and objectively evaluate whether there is any room for error. You might be surprised at what you find. One marketing executive had long been speculating about a potential acquisition target. When he finally commissioned a study to understand customer attitudes, he realized that the business' core value prop was not, in fact, of interest to that particular group. Be willing to look critically at the things you hold dear, and you will be better for it.

While it's a natural tendency to think others will like what we like, business leaders need to be careful not to assume that what makes them happy will make their customers happy. This doesn't mean you have to set aside intuition or ignore your own experiences, but it does mean you need to be careful about jumping to conclusions, because you are not actually your customer.

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