To understand the customer, you have to become the customer

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October 9, 2023

A few years back, I had the pleasure of interviewing Duncan Wardle who used to be the Head of Innovation and Creativity at Disney for many years. And he told me one thing that I will never forget, and that some CEOs might perhaps find quite extravagant:

“If you’re only looking at the data, you’re also only looking where your competition is looking. And if you’re only looking where your competition is looking, how will you find that one insight that will allow you to innovate in ways that somebody else can’t? That’s why I would give anyone the advice to “stop being so arrogant and go and live with your customers for a day”.

Duncan believed that executives were often so far removed from their customers that they no longer know what’s important to them. And he always advised that everybody in an organization – who’s not in direct contact with the consumer – to go spend a day per year in their living room. He believed that will ground you in becoming a consumer centric organization.

Customer anthropology

I had to think back to that story, when I recently learned that Brian Chesky, the CEO of Airbnb does something very similar, trying to understand the customer by going into the field and “becoming” the customer. I love how he spent the last six months living on the premises that he’s been renting out through his own platform. He wanted to learn what the real customer experience was like and that really turned out to be an eye-opening adventure for him.

As you may suspect, in many cases, the experience of staying in these places turned out great, even flawless, just as he was promised. But in 10% of the cases, he was truly disappointed. Sometimes because the owners gave him a list of chores upon entering or leaving the premises. Others asked for a gigantic cleaning fee. And these were all things that were not in line with his philosophy of what Airbnb should stand for: convenient and radically use-driven. Very similarly to what Duncan advised, Brian Chesky decided to look at the world from a customer point of view, bypassing Excel files or obsessing over market research data. He performed some kind of radical customer anthropology.

If that sounds a bit absurd to you as a CEO or other C-level decision maker, just realize that Wardle nor Chesky are alone in this approach. When Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, wanted to learn something about his customers, he would visit a store, about 25 locations a week. Sam Walton, too, used to visit his own Walmart and competitor’s stores every week to find out what they were doing right or wrong, and he expected the same from Walmart’s home office operations managers and buyers. Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, was known to visit consumers’ homes to understand how PepsiCo’s products fit into their lives. She emphasized the importance of gaining a first-hand understanding of the cultural context in which PepsiCo’s products were consumed. When CEO Tim Cook visits an Apple Store, he loves to surprise the staff by entering through the back entrance (the store manager is typically the only one to know he will join) and then takes his time to talk to employees and answer any questions they have about Apple.

Friction hunting

But back to the Chesky example, the first thing he did when he came back in the office was make a list of 50 items that he wanted to change to improve the customer experience. And for me, that’s a perfect example of what I call “friction hunting”, where employees and decision makers look for really small frictions and then solve them in a manageable way:

As you may already know, I really believe that fixing 100 small things can have a much bigger impact than just implementing one or two big strategic projects for your customers. Details, when combined, can have a huge effect: it’s in those tiny frictions that you can either win or lose customers and by going into the field, you can find them, and solve them.

All of this his reminds me of a Harvard Business Review article that I read a couple of years ago about how CEOs spent their Time. The results of that study were astonishing to me. Only something like 3% was spent with customers, 6% with frontline staff and about 72% in meetings. That may seem pretty harmless, but the result is that you come to live in your own bubble, far removed from the customer.

The solution is pretty simple, really. Follow Chesky’s, Wardle’s and the others’ lead by spending time with customers or by going through the customer experience yourself. That’s the best way to figure out what you should change. To understand the customer, you must become the customer. I believe that this a must do for every leader out there.

This article first appeared on Steven's own blog. Read that and more here.

Steven Van Belleghem
Steven Van Belleghem
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October 9, 2023