As leaders rise in an organization they develop great skills as speakers. They give speeches at conferences or on podcasts, skate through interviews with press and analysts, paint visions of success for investors and motivate their teams to do great work. This is all part of being an executive. But sometimes, they get so used to speaking they forget the most important thing: listening.
Often executives get brought into customer meetings to speak to the strategy, the product roadmap, give their insights into the industry and perhaps the history of the company. Those are important topics, for sure.
But the more an executive is talking, the less they are listening. This is especially true of founders, CEOs and CTOs. The audience may be in such awe of their past accomplishments, that they go along with whatever vision has been communicated. Sometimes that means they are swayed by the presentation and buy-in full-heartedly. Other times, it might mean they don’t raise questions or objections.
It is exceedingly rare executive who has the gift for listening to customers. And yet, it’s the only way to ensure that you are building products that resonate with the market.
There’s a certain amount of BS in the tech industry that emanates from the Steve Jobs view of the world that customers don’t know what they want. Henry Ford was famous for saying that if he asked customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse. Unfortunately, most founders and executives are not Steve Jobs or Henry Ford. Most executives would do better with at least 50% more listening than talking, whether with customers or employees.
For certain highly technical products, it’s fair to say that customers might not know the best architectural solution to their problem. However, customers are experts in understanding the problems they have and which problems are a high priority and which are not.
Many marketplace failures stem from interesting technical solutions to problems that customers don’t have or don’t care about. Asking open ended questions and listening are the only way to understand their needs and priorities.
Executives who profess that customers don’t know what they want are demonstrating contempt to the very people who pay their salaries. Not only does this risk product failure, but it can also result in a culture of arrogance.
One of the most impactful things I did at Duo Security was take what was a somewhat disconnected product team and get them out talking to customers. I set objectives for them to meet with 2 customers per month, each, which was more than they had done in the prior six months. In fact, they hadn’t talked to any customers. I helped them create a structured set of open-ended questions to uncover the problems they actually cared about. The savvier people on the product team made friends with their sales colleagues to get in front of customers, learn what they could and then shared the results across the entire engineering team. And while there was sometimes a level of panic that certain planned features did not seem to solve problems the customers cared about, over a few short weeks, we were able to re-orient Engineering toward the problems that really mattered.
Subsequent to this, we routinely invited customers to speak in person at our all-hands meeting, where they were interviewed on stage by our head of customer success. Customers explained what they liked and what they disliked about our product. Some came with a set of features they wanted to see in future product releases. I saw engineers hanging off every word from a customer who complained about the amount of retraining required for his users based on what had seemed like a fairly innocuous user interface change. Engineers talked about some of these customer interviews for years afterward. It truly reshaped the culture to become hugely customer centric, a trait that was a significant advantage for us in the market place. We no longer had to guess whether a new release would be successful or not. We were validating features with prospects and customers before we shipped.
I have never seen a company fail because it listened too much to customers. But I’ve seen the opposite many times.
As an executive how often do you listen to customers? How do you share the lessons learned from customer success and sales more broadly in the company? How can you make customer focus a bigger part of the culture?
Let me know your feedback or questions by posting a comment below.