Firsthand Customer Learning Always Beats “Behind the Desk”

For sustained business excellence, engage and learn across the corporation and outside the office.

Business leaders need to avoid the ivory tower syndrome and get out into the market for real learning. There’s only so much you can accomplish sitting at your desk. If you’re not interacting with everyone and everything that makes your company tick, that’s a problem – and a lost opportunity. For marketers, it means building connections and relationships across the entire business, both inside and outside the office.

To really understand what’s happening with your business, obtain and maintain a fact-based assessment of your customers.

  • What do they truly require to achieve success?
  • How are your products and services making a difference toward their success?
  • Why do they do business with your company?
  • How do they perceive the members of your team with whom they interact?

It may not be immediately obvious, yet there can be multiple layers of customers, such as direct customers and ultimate end-users. It’s important to understand customer layers, and factor that into marketing and sales strategies and plans. For instance, an ingredients company’s primary customers may be food and beverage manufacturers, who sell finished products to consumers. Those consumers are the ultimate end-users.

Consider transportation company Uber Technologies.

During the last two years, senior executives, including CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, have been driving cars transporting passengers and delivering food. It’s been part of a concerted action plan to secure the quantity of drivers required to effectively run the business. Critical to that was understanding and addressing driver grievances. (What Happened When Uber’s CEO Started Driving for Uber. Preetika Rana, The Wall Street Journal.)

Uber’s primary customers are ride-seeking passengers, hungry consumers, and food operators wanting a rapid distribution mechanism to service their hungry customers. At the same time, Uber’s drivers can also be considered customers. Without a reliable supply of top-performing drivers, there is no Uber business.

Khosrowshahi and the Uber team gained valuable firsthand information and detailed understanding about what worked and more importantly, what needed to be fixed. Some examples:

  • “Clunky” sign-up process for people versus food
  • Poor training on how to interact with restaurants for food deliveries
  • Trip destination information not included

There was even a necessary improvement that probably would not have been uncovered otherwise:

  • The company’s product head “found the company’s maps could be difficult to read while driving. Arrows marking turns were in colors that made them hard to see when sunlight reflected off a phone’s screen. It was simple to fix—but hadn’t come up when he tested maps in the office.”

Khosrowshahi and the Uber team now acknowledge a more comprehensive view of their customers, and embrace achieving a broader satisfaction. “Historically, we’ve always put a premium on the rider experience.” Now, they also need to win the “hearts and minds” of drivers.

Find the best ways to stay connected to your business and your customers. It doesn’t have to be a version of Undercover Boss. Just find out. What to do with that information and data is your next challenge!

More ideas and examples are in my new book, available on Amazon: Strategy First, Then Tactics.®: How Practical Marketing Discipline Provides the Winning Edge.

Harvey Chimoff is a global marketing executive whose experience and expertise span consumer packaged-goods brand management, B2B manufacturing, and plug-in marketing leader consulting. He is a customer-focused leader who connects marketing across the organization to drive performance and achieve business objectives. Harvey is the author of the new book Strategy First, Then Tactics.® How Practical Marketing Discipline Provides the Winning Edge, available on Amazon. Contact him at

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