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Walk in the Customer's Shoes

"Walking in the customer's shoes" means understanding your customer's business and the issues that are critical to their success. Simply put, you ask yourself questions like, What might this person be experiencing? What are the factors critical to their success? Many people understand this concept, but not everyone sees its importance or practices it regularly. Yet it is absolutely key to truly serving the customer well.

I know of one salesperson who put this concept in action. He was attempting to get his foot in the door with a large fast-food franchiser. Because he didn't have a contact in the prospective company, he decided to find out firsthand the business issues this company was facing by taking a part-time weekend job for a short time at one of its outlets. Then he followed up with a letter that discussed the issues he observed based on his firsthand experience. The customer was impressed with his thoroughness.

How can you walk in the customer's shoes? Asking good questions and listening are the first steps, of course. Here are other ideas you can use, with the customer's permission:

  • Conduct in-depth interviews of their top performers.

  • Spend at least a half day observing their work operation.

  • Spend at least a half day working in their operation.

  • Sit in on one of their meetings and observe.

  • Listen to their executives.

  • Talk with their customers.

  • Work on a project team in their operation.

  • Experience the best (increased earnings) and worst (cutbacks) of their work.

Item 2 on this list, spending time observing their work operation, can provide critical data. It will allow you to understand how your customer really uses your product or service (or their current supplier) or how they have adapted it to suit their needs. You may see how they overcome little inconveniences or work around less than perfect solutions. You may get to talk with some of their operational people and hear their opinions. Observing firsthand the customer's operation will provide unique insights that you can't get elsewhere. This will give you a competitive advantage that will be more than worth the time you invest.

Here is an example I experienced. I have done hundreds of presentations at meeting facilities in the U.S. and Canada. In all that time, never have any facility staff approached me to say, "I would like to understand what you have to do to get ready." Sometimes (and it doesn't happen as often as it should) someone will stop by just to ensure that everything is set up according to what was ordered and is satisfactory. But until they observe firsthand what I do, they cannot really understand the importance of the many details that have to be attended to in preparation for the meeting I'm conducting (such as making sure that there is sufficient room between the chairs, that the air-conditioning or heating is working properly, that electrical wires have been taped down, or that there is no noise coming into the room from an adjoining room). They wouldn't have to do what I do—they could just stay for part of the presentation and observe, or even just ask. They understand what they need to do from their point of view (get the coffee in, get the chairs set up, and so on), and they usually do it well. But having an understanding from my point of view would result in even greater customer satisfaction.

All of us have been told at some point that we could improve certain areas of performance. Even though we may have recognized the advice as accurate and well intended, we may have been reluctant to go to the trouble to address the weakness. The advice interfered with our plans, created a problem, required us to do some things differently—to change. Being aware of the human tendency to resist suggestions for improvement can help us heed good advice so we can change what we're doing before our weaknesses result in negative consequences.

What have you done, what do you do, or what could you do as a professional to walk in your customer's shoes?


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