It is important be able to anticipate future needs of your customers. This will give you a competitive advantage as most of your competitors will only change after reacting to needs customers already have and may be shopping elsewhere to get. Her are a few tips to help you know what your customers want BEFORE they do.

  • Staple yourself to a customer’s order.  Track key customers’ experiences as they traverse your company’s pathways and note where the experience breaks down.  Some hospitals ask interns to experience the check-in process as fake patients. One client asked managers to listen in on its call center. If you can’t exactly put yourself through a customer experience, try role-playing exercises at all points of the customer’s experience with your company.
  • Field diverse customer teams.  One bank added members of the back-office support group to its customer team, supplementing the usual customer-facing roles. IBM sends senior teams from different disciplines into the field to meet customers and develop a deep understanding of how to serve them better.
  • Learn together with customers. GE invited its top customers in China, along with local executives and account managers, to a seminar on leadership and innovation. Doing so not only helped GE executives better understand the mindset of Chinese counterparts; it also helped them to influence that mindset.
  • Lean forward and anticipate.  Focus on what customers will want tomorrow, as Steve Jobs and Richard Branson did so exquisitely.  Try to envision different futures through tools like scenario planning and then explore how underlying market shifts may affect your customers.

Remember that sometimes you need to get out of your own way to really understand your customers. Psychologists know, for example, that you’re likely to listen for problems that fit your own offerings, and to discount others. That can cause you to miss important opportunities, or to get blindsided later.

So, try to listen with a third ear, as an anthropologist would, to what your customers are saying to you.  If you can truly hear them, they’ll tell you all you need to know.

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