7 Ways to See Your Business From Your Customers’ Perspective

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The most successful leaders don’t rely solely on data to tell them what’s happening. They take steps to put themselves in their customers’ shoes. They want to deeply understand the business—its products, employees, and competitors—and experience it as their customers do.

I agree. Get out there and see what’s happening firsthand. Make it a habit. Learn as much as you can, as quickly as you can, informally. Here are seven ways to start:

Get direct input. The late Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, would often fly, talk with customers and employees, and wander through airports. Howard Schultz, longtime CEO of Starbucks, spent significant time in stores, which helped him make informed decisions, such as investing in below-eye-level espresso machines so that baristas could see over them and have direct contact with customers.

Go social. Posts on social media platforms provide unruly, unvarnished, and often helpful feedback. What are customers commenting on? Do the comments sway to the positive or negative? What issues seem to encourage additional posts? Peek in now and then to get a quick sense of what’s happening and how your organization is responding.

You can use social listening tools for this if you’d like. There are many available, and they can help you pull in this information and gauge customer sentiment.

Listen to your employees. As obvious as this is, many leaders don’t take full advantage of this rich source of input. “MBWA”—management by walking around—will never lose its value.

Employee surveys are also a necessity, as is looking through employee reviews of organizations on sites such as Glassdoor and Indeed. (Search for sites popular in your industry, region, or country—examples include JobAdvisor.com.au in Australia and RateMyEmployer.ca in Canada.)

Pay attention to product and service reviews. Reviews on Amazon, Tripadvisor, Yelp, and numerous other sites can trigger invaluable revelations. You’ll see how customers describe your products and services as well as their experiences with your brand.

If available, it’s a great idea to compare customer reviews with professional reviews from sources such as CNET or Consumer Reports. Culling through unfiltered input from customers can take some emotional toughness, but effective leaders do it as a habit.

Mine operational data. Operational data is another great source of information. For example, how are fulfillment times going? Contact rates for support? Internal quality metrics? There are many potential sources of information to mine. Yes, you’ll want to capture and review this data as part of a formal process, but sometimes just following your intuition can lead to helpful aha moments.

Hold informal focus groups. While traditional focus groups take time and effort to set up, there are less formal alternatives. For example, I once was having lunch with a senior VP of a retail company. As we were standing in line at a deli near their offices, a person behind us saw a logo on the VP’s briefcase.

“Do you work there?” she asked.


“I’m a customer. And a fan!”

“Thank you! How are things going?”

“Great, pretty much…um…I don’t know if this is the place…”

“Tell me!”

“I’m not quite understanding the thinking behind changing some loyalty benefits. For example…”

The conversation turned into a friendly and informative three-minute “focus group” involving several people right there in the deli. While waiting in line! The VP thanked them for their insight and for being customers. As we walked to our seats, she said she was grateful for the longer-than-usual wait that day.

Pull up your sleeves and do the work. This gets my top vote for “the best way to stay in the know.” The late John C. Bogle, founder and former CEO of Vanguard (now the largest mutual fund company in the United States), helped handle customer calls in the contact center throughout his career. He often commented on how hard the job is. On more than one occasion, customers had questions he struggled to answer and asked to be transferred to his supervisor. But what an example!

What insights might happen should all of your executives spend some time doing—or at least observing—the work? If you need some inspiration, consider adding Undercover Boss, the Emmy Award-winning reality series, to your must-watch TV list.

As a leader, it’s not practical to be directly involved in all of these areas all of the time. But finding ways to stay tuned in—beyond formal reports—sets the right example and makes a huge difference.

Brad Cleveland is one of the world’s foremost experts in customer strategy and management. A sought-after consultant and speaker, he has worked in 45 states and over 60 countries for today’s customer experience trailblazers, including American Express, Apple, USAA, Google, and others. His new book is Leading the Customer Experience: How to Chart a Course and Deliver Outstanding Results (Kogan Page). Learn more at bradcleveland.com.

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