The CEO-Customer Connection

Virtually every CEO says, "Our most important asset is our customers." Yet few actually spend much time talking with them.

Sure, CEOs will go on sales calls and try to reel in new business, but how many take the opportunity to talk with their rank-and-file customers to truly understand how they are using their product or service and really understand them?

The answer, sadly, is too few.

As a CEO of multiple companies, I have always been involved in customer support. Support is where you get the most interaction with customers and get to understand how they actually use your product. You discover very quickly where the pain points in a product are simply by answering phones or working tickets in your customer support system.

I suspect many CEOs will argue that their time is too valuable to spend dealing with customer issues, but I would argue the exact opposite: Their time is too valuable NOT to be spending time understanding their customers and issues.

As anyone who has played the game "telephone" can attest, the more times a story is retold, the fewer facts you can be absolutely certain about. When a CEO is sitting in his or her office being briefed about the state of the company's customers by a senior manager, you can be sure that some massaging of reality is taking place. Perhaps not intentionally, but no one ever wants to be the bearer of bad news to the boss, so, invariably, issues will be glossed over and problems minimized.

This is why it's critical for the CEO to get as close to the customer base as possible and ensure that he or she truly understands what customers need and want.

Once the sales department has closed a sale, the relationship with the customer generally goes to the support department. This is the group that ends up owning the relationship. Over the lifetime of the customer, this is the team that has much more interaction than the sales team ever did. By spending time "in the trenches" of the support department, a CEO can get a much better feeling for the customer base and see where the issues are. He or she also gets to speak with people actually using the product, which in many cases is a completely different group than the person who made the decision to buy it and whom the sales team was interfacing with.

While the CEO may not be the best at answering specific customer questions, just being involved in the process offers both internal and external benefits.

Despite my involvement in customer support in every company I have run, I still chuckle whenever one of our customers recognizes who I am. I don't sign emails with my title, but I also don't hide my name. Many customers don't know that I'm the boss, but the ones who do like the fact that I'm involved in the process and am genuinely concerned about their issues. That's an external benefit.

Spending time in the trenches also has internal benefits. You get to understand the hardest working group in your company—the support team—and they get to know you. Sometimes i's important in their role to be able to reach out to the CEO, and by your spending time with them, they will know that it's OK to do that.

You also increase morale in the support department by spending time with them and seeing what they go through.

Hopefully the lessons you learn by spending time in support don't stay there. Real-time customer feedback can be used to refine internal processes and, of course, your product.

Your customers will let you know what needs to be done if you will just listen.

So this week, clear your calendar and spend some time with the support department to learn about your customers. From one CEO to another, I guarantee it will be time well spent!

Robert Johnson is CEO of TeamSupport.com, an award winning cloud-based customer support suite that helps companies solve customer issues by enhancing communication, collaboration, and knowledge sharing.

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