If the recent U.S. election taught us anything, it's that you have to be careful assuming that others see the world the way you do. It's very easy for any organization — political, commercial, not-for-profit — to get caught up in its own echo chamber of like-minded believers. After certain blogs, social media outlets, pundits, and talk shows whipped themselves into a self-reinforcing frenzy, many people were stunned by the election outcome. How could so many "experts" have gotten it so wrong?
Shared enthusiasm and beliefs are valuable assets when pushing for a goal. In a business context, it's vital that your employees are emotionally invested in your company's vision. But there need to be checks and balances to make sure that the vision matches external reality, or you could be enthusiastically charging toward a similar shock. As the science fiction author Philip K. Dick once remarked, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
Getting an objective view of who you, as an organization, are trying to serve is critical, but it's easier said than done.
Most companies are the centers of their own universes. It's a natural enough impression; after all, the products and services they offer are on their minds 24/7. The trap is in those companies deluding themselves into thinking that they are as important to their customers as they are to themselves. This is almost never the case. This delusion interferes with understanding customers and their needs, and frequently leads companies to talk to customers in ways that seem foreign or confusing.
Financial services, the area that I work in now, is an example. It is rampant with confusing jargon and terminology, such as compound interest, ETFs, or the now infamous CDO, or collateralized debt obligation. A 2008 AARP study found that 79% of Americans think prescription drug instructions are easier to understand than materials from financial firms.
But the financial services industry is not alone. Health care, wireless communications, real estate, information technology, and airlines are all major industries that consistently confuse and turn off their customers, leading to mistrust and disloyalty.
Jargon in communication is just the surface of the problem. People who work in these industries day-to-day become infused with insider knowledge, techniques, and perspectives. After a while they forget their former lack of expertise and start to assume that everyone must also possess their knowledge — customers included.
Employees are like hostages suffering from Stockholm syndrome — they take on the worldview of their employer and industry, and forget what it's like to be a "regular" person without this specialized knowledge. Over time, employees start to talk mostly about tangible product features and become distanced from customer needs and benefits. Value propositions become more abstract and lose the naïve freshness of seeing of who customers really are and how they think, behave, and feel. It becomes increasingly difficult to see your company and industry as nonexpert outsiders do.
How do we fix this? There are many research methods for better understanding customers, and you may be using them already: ethnographic research, focus groups, surveys, in-store intercepts, and so on. It's also important to encourage employees to use competitors' products, so they don't develop tunnel vision. These are good and necessary, but you can have lots of data and still not see what it's saying.
There are two things that can stand in the way getting real insight:
1. Admitting you may be wrong. If the organization isn't willing to recognize that it's not connecting with customers, dismisses indications that customers are confused or uninterested as "irrelevant outliers," or avoids the message by shooting the messenger, then all the research in the world won't help. Yes, there are times when an organization needs to be visionary and do things that at first most customers don't get. Salesforce.com's pioneering role in the nascent area of cloud computing services is an example of a company that was willing to lose some customers early on in pursuit of the bigger market later. But you have to be very confident in the size of the potential opportunity — and have the organizational fortitude — to pull of that big of a bet. Silicon Valley is littered with companies that made similar bets and failed because ultimately their proposed view of reality never came to align with that of their target customers'.
2. Garbage in, garbage out. If you're talking to too narrow of a sample (as was the case with many of the conservative pollsters) or framing research questions in ways that subtly pre-bias the answers, you could be inadvertently creating ever-better products for a shrinking audience. Don't just meet with your best and current customers; get outside the echo chamber by meeting with ex-customers or people who have never been your customers but love your competitors and the upstart disruptors. (Yes, this often stresses out the sales team.) Years ago, when I was at Sun Microsystems, many at the company initially dismissed the cheap servers then being introduced by Dell and Compaq. Our loyal customers at large companies with massive IT budgets weren't interested in these low quality machines. Not then, anyway. Sun couldn't bring itself to lower its standards, and as a result, it ceded a huge part of the market to competitors moving up from the PC space.
Don't wait for a catastrophe to show you when you've become too caught up in your own hype. Make sure you are continuously seeking a more thorough and objective understanding of your customers, harness the fresh perspectives of new employees, and have the humility to recognize that your customers may have needs and lives beyond your company.