The customer at the window, the wolf at the door

I recently kicked off a series of posts on insulation that’s meant to talk about the critical ways leaders can become disconnected—and hopefully provide some ideas on how they can fight against it.

I listed four kinds of insulation in the introductory post:

  • From the larger organizational context
  • From the work being done on the ground
  • From wider communities of practice
  • From the marketplace

In this post I want to dig into the last one, insulation from the marketplace.

The problem

Of the four kinds of insulation, this one is the easiest to fall prey to and the most difficult to counteract. After all, the marketplace is made up of your competition and your customers—two very difficult folks to get familiar with. But without knowing as much as possible about both, you won’t be as effective a leader as you could be.

For those of you out there in sales, marketing, and customer service, being attuned to your customers or your competition (or both) is part and parcel of your job description. But for the rest of us, our day-to-day, short-term responsibilities can keep us so busy that we forget about the larger context of our work.

The solution

There’s no single best way to get to know your customers and competition better. But I want to share a few techniques I’ve used over the years to fight against this kind of insulation.

  • Spend a day doing side-by-sides with customer service reps, both veterans and newbies. Hearing what customers have to say about your products and services (as well as what the reps have to say about their own experiences on the job) will give you a crash course in who your customers are and what they want.
  • Get to know the sales team. These are the folks who are most intimately acquainted with your competition…because they go toe-to-toe with them every day out in the field. Ask to sit in on their sales meetings; take individual reps or managers to lunch/coffee to pick their brains; and when you get to know them better, see if you can tag along on visits to existing accounts—the latter is a great way to get in front of customers directly.
  • Become an expert in your products and services. Maybe it’s because of the time I spent in IT, but I can’t tell you how many co-workers I’ve had who were bit fuzzy on exactly what we did at any given company. Sure, they knew in general what we did, but if they had to explain our product catalog to an outsider, they’d be a deer in the headlights. This might be okay for a line level employee, but if you want to be a leader, this should be ingrained in how you think at work.
  • Use the marketing department as a resource. Your products and services don’t come out of thin air; they’re based on tons of market research that looks at potential customers and the competitive landscape. So, now that you have a solid grasp on your product catalog (see last bullet), reach out to folks in marketing to learn about the strategy and positioning behind the catalog: who are/aren’t the target customer segments? Who are/aren’t our main classes of competitor? What’s our go to market strategy for different product classes, customer segments, and markets?

The final word

That’s my best advice for how to get to know your competitors and customers—how about you folks? Got any tried and true advice on how to do this? Horror stories of what happens when you’re out of touch with either (or both) of them? Success stories about how you connected with either (or both) of them? Jump in, and let’s get the conversation started!

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