The CEO and the customer

Are you the leader of your business? If so, when was the last time you spoke to customers, or watched them actually use, or trial, or consider your product or service? If it was last week, don’t let me get between you and the flat white that’s steaming on your desk. If it was much longer, stick around.

Once, there was a CEO of a construction company. He wasn’t often at his desk because he was out talking to people.

He talked to the company’s bankers and accountants.

He talked to the construction materials suppliers.

He talked to local councils.

He talked to landowners.

He talked to the managers leading the company’s regional businesses.

And he always fronted up at sales conferences to talk to his employees who worked at the coalface.

One day, he talked to a consultant about marketing strategies to sell more buildings.

She said, “When you talk to your customers, what do they say they want?”

“Customers! I hate talking to bloody customers.”

The consultant tried to swallow her gurgle of surprise.

“The only customers that get through to me are the ones who are furious,” he said. “The ones we’ve stuffed about so badly they insist on complaining to the boss.” He jabbed his thumb into his forehead. “Me.”

“There are lots of happier customers out there, you know,” the consultant replied cautiously. “And not just customers. There are people who aren’t customers yet. And people who nearly were customers, but in the end went with another construction company. They’re all worth hearing from.”

“It’s not my job to talk them, though. That’s for the sales and marketing guys. I’ve got more than enough to be doing. Finances. Strategy. Vision. The Board.”

“I understand. But the CEO should hear the voice of the customer once in a while.   If I can set up some interviews, you could come along to one or two.”

“Do other CEOs do this?”

“Yes,” the consultant averred and quietly muttered, “with a bit of a push.”  She cleared her throat and went on. “There was a story at BCG years ago about the CEO of Campbell Soup who was taken by the consultants to meet a stay-at-home mum in the suburbs. The CEO asked permission to look in her pantry and saw tin after tin of canned soup. He was equally delighted and puzzled. The housewife explained that she often reached for a can in the grocery store, feeling sure it would come in useful for somerhing more than a simple bowl of soup…but then she’d find she didn’t have any clear, easy recipe ideas to use them in. So, the tins accumulated in her cupboard. This, as I recall, led to a fresh line of thinking around convenience meals.”

The CEO sighed and agreed to listen in on a few interviews.

What did he learn?

This isn’t a fairy story, so it doesn’t end with him having a blinding flash of insight from a profound “moment of truth” with the customer. But he did hear from happy and patient customers for the first time, which cheered him up. He also heard how much certain customers, often female, enjoyed choosing the various interior finishes on their building – and their disappointment when that part of the specification process felt rushed. It was a good clue about how to deepen their satisfaction with the process, and that had the potential, over time, to lead to stronger word of mouth and more referrals.

With the CEO able to speak the truth of the need for that process to change, you can be sure it got championed from the highest level.

CEOs have a lot to do, no doubt, but customers’ experiences have a lot to do with long term success. Hearing about them, direct and undiluted, is always worth the time investment.