Close Encounters of the Customer Kind


THE BIG IDEA: Customer obsession is a fundamental characteristic of long-term, outperforming leadership. Inspired leaders find practical ways to keep their top executives connected to the front lines of their business.


Sitting in their corner offices with unfettered views of the city skyline, like the untouchable professors hiding away in their ivory towers, it’s all too easy for chief-level executives to become far removed from their customers.

Outperforming leaders of Cult Brands and other businesses with loyal customers, however, demonstrate a desire to know their customers. The great ones, like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, obsess about them.

How Inspired Leaders Stay Connected to Their Customers

Sam Walton, the late founder and CEO of Wal-Mart, scripted one of his ten rules of success:

“Listen to everyone in your company, and figure out ways to get them talking. The folks on the front line—the ones who actually talk to customers—are the only ones who really know what’s going on out there. You’d better find out what they know.”

Walton kept his sights grounded by communicating directly with the associates working the floors. He also democratized the corporate structure through his “cross-pollination” efforts where managers from different departments swapped jobs, to keep them challenged and on top of the market.

Like Walton, Colleen Barrett, retired president of Southwest Airlines, understood the value of cooperation, teamwork, and empathy in bridging divides. In the early 1990s, Barrett established the Culture Committee to preserve and enhance the airline’s unique culture.

One project was the “Days in the Field” program where executives and managers spend a day every quarter doing front-line work. You might see senior officers serving as flight attendants, baggage checkers, or ‘appearance technicians,’ working through the night to ensure that the planes are clean for the next day’s flights.

IKEA’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, instituted a similar initiative to foster egalitarianism, stave off the bureaucratic mindset, and keep decision makers in touch.

During “anti-bureaucracy week,” executives are required to leave the comforts of their corporate offices and work the front lines of IKEA’s stores for an entire week. During the week, you’ll see chief officers manning registers, hauling furniture, and helping customers in the showroom.

Yet there is one caveat.

“All of the executives must be there on weekends, when the stores are the busiest, teeming with shoppers of all kinds,” explains IKEA country manager Kent Nordin. “It’s not enough to check in on a Monday and out on a Thursday afternoon. You have to be there when the heat is on.”

If you’re a retailer, can you imagine working the registers this Friday? Does the thought terrify you or excite you? Imagine how much you can learn about your customers on the biggest shopping day of the year?

The Art of Listening to Your Customers

Being on the frontlines has several advantages. It increases managerial empathy while decreasing bureaucracy. It improves cooperation and strengthens the corporate culture. It provides intimate customer knowledge, leading to more effective decisions in marketing, product development, and corporate strategy.

Listening is the cornerstone of the world’s best businesses because it leads to the discovery of what will surprise, amuse, and reward its customers.

Turning a deaf ear to the life blood of your business will keep you sheltered from the day-in-day-out realities of your company’s operations. In today’s competitive and constantly changing marketplace, you can’t afford to be deaf.

Are you willing to get onto the frontlines?

Can you hear what your customers are saying?

Happy Thanksgiving from your Cult Branding team!


P.S. BJ Bueno was recently interviewed by The Customer Edge to find out how to extend the buzz beyond Black Friday. Read the interview here.

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