I can’t count how many market research managers I have met, or even managed that haven’t spoken to a customer personally in years. These folks are supposed to be the” voice of the customer”, but that voice often comes from survey data or from behind a one way mirror. If you work in a market intelligence organization, ask yourself how many times you have really had a deep and meaningful conversation with a customer. Just you, looking at the customer in the eye while he or she opens up about your product. If it is less than once a month or worse, once a quarter, how are you going to represent them within your organization?

I was fortunate to learn this lesson very early in my career. Shortly after I started at Microsoft in the early 1990’s (yes that was a long time ago) I was managing market intelligence for one of Microsoft’s most critical audiences, software developers. The head of our organization wanted all key managers (probably 75 folks or so) to go out and personally meet customers around the world, hear them out and understand their issues. This included employees from every key function including product managers, software engineers, marcom managers and others.

I was in charge of putting this large site visit project together. It was a blast. We had a list of cities around the country and a few around the world we would visit. We had a lottery to decide who would go to what city. I ended up getting Geneva, and promptly bought a ticket for my wife and combined the site visit with a little vacation. We divided our customers into three segments and went out to spend time with customers in their setting.

A few weeks later, after everyone returned, an amazing thing happened. No conversations were in a vacuum. Every discussion around product plans, business strategy or marketing involved personal experience. There was no “I think”; that changed to “when I was at… I learnt”. For the next many months, every key decision was grounded in customer insight, and every key manager felt an affinity and empathy towards customers having seen in person how they interacted with our products. Sending so many employees out with the sole intention of getting grounded in customer issues was a bold and unusual move, but like many other decisions the company made at the time, it was richly rewarded.

Since then, I have always maintained this approach. Later in another role, when I was managing research for the Microsoft Windows business I recall going on a trip and learning first-hand what mission critical really meant when I spent an afternoon with the head of IT for a major financial exchange. I recall the half eaten sandwich on his desk and the constant ringing of his phone and the impact any software failure would have on their business. I would never get that depth of knowledge or empathy for customers from any survey or focus group.

If you are a market intelligence manager you will only be successful if you truly know your customers, deeply. This personal touch with customers will give you credibility when presenting your research results to your organization. If you are trying to make a lasting impact, go out and spend time with your customers, speak with them and hear them out and look them in the eye. Nothing is more important if you are the “voice of the customer”

 

 

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