Last week I led a workshop on generating ideas for a new product for a financial services firm. I described research that indicated that customers of the firm had certain needs. Rather than delving deeper into the needs and understanding the root causes that kept the customers from complete satisfaction with the current offerings, several of the people in attendance asked why the customers didn't simply use the products and services on offer already, and went on to list all of the features and benefits of the existing products and services. It's as if I don't need to listen to your needs and requirements as long as I can produce a long list of features that you might find interesting. Rather than understanding what you need, let me tell you what we've got and let you, the customer, figure out if that's valuable.
There's a huge deficiency in our ability to listen to our customers, and I blame that on a couple of management and leadership mantras. The first is "active listening", which was supposed to be a panacea for not listening. Now we are supposed to listen and repeat back what we've heard from the customer, but mostly we are just queuing up what we want to say in response. The second reason we don't listen well is overconfidence based on misguided market research. Many firms have tremendous reams of data about customer satisfaction with existing products, but don't survey prospects about why they don't uptake existing products, and have no insight into new products or services. We are overly confident based on a reasonable grasp of about one third of the problem. Third, we often simply assume our customers are misguided or don't understand. It can't be our fault, so clearly the customer doesn't understand our offerings or products. The problem here is that it is likely that they don't understand since we didn't communicate it well, or simply didn't communicate the offering at all.
Businesses and individuals who comprise those businesses need to shut up, sit down and start interacting with customers and prospects on a much more basic level. As competition heats up and the pace of change increases, small mistakes are compounded and make it much more difficult to catch up. Put aside the "active" listening and the certainty that you are right and listen to the needs, wants and aspirations of your customers and prospects. Ask them questions rather than providing solutions. Get down to the root causes of their needs. Then, ascertain whether or not the products and services you offer meet their needs and the challenge is a lack of understanding or communication, or if your products and services are missing key features that will make the offering more compelling.
The problem isn't with the customer, it's with the business. Stop talking, stop thinking and start listening. Then, once you've listened, start thinking, start changing, and then start talking to your customer.