listen to your customer and turn intent into reality


Visualising the future experience for quantum growth:

Education is a lifelong journey. I recall the words of a motto I learned from my Dad (of blessed memory) years ago when I was a boy. ‘Education has no end’ he taught me and how true these words have proven to be, personally inspiring me to pursue further education in the middle of my career and to understand life in general as a whole learning platform where the educational journey is unending. The learning cycle by David Kolb teaches us about the 4 stages in learning of how experience is translated through reflection into concepts, which in turn are used as guides for active experimentation and the choice of new experiences. He teaches further that all stages must be followed in sequence for successful learning to take place. It is not sufficient just to have the experience to learn, it is also necessary to reflect on the experience then to make generalisations and formulate concepts.

So, in business, it is not sufficient to just have an encounter with your customer, what is of value is the commitment you make to reflect on these encounters and strive to understand the customer’s needs to make informed decisions based on your insight of their uniqueness. The learning cycle may not exactly replicate the learning encounter with your customer however it helps create the awareness of deliberate learning to draw the right conclusions and to help you empathise with their needs.  As you manage your journey touchpoints you learn regularly what your customer’s preferences are, enabling you to anticipate and position your offerings to match their expectations.

Imagine this common scenario we face always where a business only sees the customer in two interactions. These occur where the customer places an order and where payment is made. There is not much ‘dialogue to break the ice questions’ (sports, current affairs, and small talk) or very little upselling takes place.  Despite these customers are content to keep coming and are willing to wait for their turn to be served. Come to think of it, what an amazing business it would be if you only focus on the customer and delivered a product or service that kept the customer coming and coming. At the heart of it all is the need to build meaningful customer relationships. Imagine a situation where you are starting a restaurant in the city sandwiched between some popular eateries such as KFC, Eddie’s Pizza, and Papaye. Your first few customers will wonder whether you would last the year. Failure is not an option; you just have to believe in putting the customer first. The reality is that these ‘neighbours’ of yours are competitors so what a difference it would make if you could turn things on its head and accept all the negative comments from customers as feedback! This is quintessentially a David and Goliath situation. Three things you can do to turn this around says Sarb Rana a UK-based serial entrepreneur who has founded companies spanning a breadth of sectors.  He proposes 3 major approaches as follows; figuring out the solution, favouring relationships over transactions, and applying real-life lessons.

Figuring out the solution

How much time do you spend analysing the competition, focusing on competitors from product offerings customer journeys, branding, and so on? Is that time worth it? Please don’t get me wrong here, I agree it is an important part of understanding the market and positioning your brand but again could you invest a bit more time in your internals? How can you stand out from the noise and make yourself heard while adding value to your customers on a limited budget? Perhaps if you spent a bit more time looking internally it might be worth your while. So, for example, if you asked yourself what can I do differently to engage my customer proactively, you may be well on your way to making a good start. Note that the most important resources at your disposal are your internal team and your customers. How do you build a lasting relationship with both publics birthing the right culture to make good your customer-first quest?

Let me revisit a model I have used in my previous writing from Philip Kotler. He outlines a new customer path as he examines the marketplace’s shifting power dynamics in his book, Marketing 4.0: Moving from Traditional to Digital. According to him every customer journey must aim at 5 broad areas in assessing touchpoints thinking from the perspective of you know who …. The customer! Therefore, in examining your internals you may journey through the broad categories to help you develop empathy for your customer to aid you in addressing your internal requirements to align with the needs of those who vote with their feet.

These are, First, Awareness – note that your customers are passively exposed to a plethora of brands from experience, marketing communications, and advocacy of others therefore you aim to be as visible to them as you possibly can to help them discern from the ‘noise’; second is Appeal – people become aware of a brand they are exposed to, big brands are very effective at positioning their brand to create a situation that appeals to customers, perhaps a Business Model Canvass exercise is useful here to give you a good sense of your market positioning.  Third, ask – Once they reach the appeal stage, customers follow-up by seeking more information and asking questions from friends, family, the media, or anywhere else they see fit. This stage is a combination of both digital and traditional methods therefore attribution can be a challenge. To dispel this, you will need to position yourself such that you can be found variously through blogs, reviews, social media, and word of mouth.

Fourth, Act – customers may be ready to act having ticked all the boxes by asking all the appropriate questions. Note that customers may consider other ways to act other than buying, indicating interest or intent, such as engagement on social platforms, how can you engage them interactively here? Finally, customers may end up as Advocates – they may develop a sense of loyalty. Driving from awareness to advocacy – extremely important to get it right here they potentially become your marketing communications, sales force, and customer service staff. Understanding your own business and being deliberate about learning about the customer is potentially rewarding.

Favouring relationships over transactions

All small businesses to succeed need to be creative with solutions to beat the competition. Use out-of-the-box thinking to birth ideas that will propel your business to prominence in your market space. Play to your strengths and be genuine. No one cares for your business more than you, as you engage with your customers, they feel your passion, when you have conversations with them the fact that you care about them shines through. Engaging the customer proactively is a universal principle that deserves attention from every business. Some businesses have found a way to engage through personalization. Take Netflix, the entertainment provider they go out of their way to ensure that all their posters are completely personalised to you as a viewer, you see these personalized posters when you log in.

A great customer-focused strategy starts with understanding what your customers are looking for. How many times have you felt disappointed at your popular fufu joint when you realised that the one serving you is different from the person who frequently attends your table? To make meaningful relationships you need to be deliberate about ensuring that relationships are developed as part of your business strategy. Manage your staff rotas to make sure a customer would be served by the same customer service staff on their visit. Realistically this may not be possible in large business environments therefore it is good leverage for the small business, supporting your staff in building relationships as a deliberate strategy can translate into higher sales figures.

The best tool to improve customer experience is your ears, for listening. Just by listening on social media, you can create wonderful customer experiences. Founder and CEO, Emily Weiss shared the following insight on Glossier’s success. “Conversations are really important. What choice do you have but to ask your customer what they want?” That’s how to turn listening into a brand superpower. Social media isn’t all about promoting, it’s about listening and helping. Having a customer-first culture in any business means it is all about the customer right from the inception of the business. Their convenience, their time, their mentality, their tendencies, their comfort, their perception, their limited attention span it is all about the customer first before starting anything.

Applying the real-life lessons

Small businesses have limitless opportunities to gain a competitive advantage. The evidence here is obvious, small businesses make critical decisions very quickly. To introduce new products instantly, discontinuing ones that did not work, pricing decisions, and so on. Your ‘lean machine’ status is a great advantage as you work your way through the flat structure as opposed to a hierarchy requiring formal processes for major decisions. So, in your eatery KFC and Papaye will be caught up in a wider decision cycle, they may attempt to copy part of your ideas but the fact is turning around an oil tanker takes some time, when that time comes you will have moved on. This was the lesson Michael Dell shared when his company was in its prime. According to him, he did not cringe from introducing new ideas and was keen to try out new things to stay ahead of the competition knowing that his competitors would be on his tail any time he introduced a new idea. By building a culture of innovation he argued, by the time his competitors had got round to imitating him he would be trying out something else to stay ahead of them.

One of the taboos for many businesses (especially small businesses) is dealing with complaints. Many feels let down by it. What if you decided to listen and learn from it and to enable you intimately understand what your customers expect, what a world of difference that would make. Years ago, I had the privilege of traveling (on a scholarship) to Singapore, while there I met this former boss of mine who generously offered to take me out. So, we had a meal in a restaurant, as it turned out things did not go too well for him. He ordered lobsters and while eating started complaining that the taste was funny. He called the waiter and guess what the poor waiter was very defensive refusing to accept any blame, his manager quickly saw it and asked him to move on to the next table. He came in and apologised to my boss and offered the same meal on the house. He declined the replacement meal however I realised his satisfaction that the Head Waiter had personally intervened in the matter. The reality is that the more complaints you get the more successful you become if you are receptive to genuine feedback. Industry leaders have developed a system for dealing with them a small business owner suggests this approach:

  1. Allow the customer to truly express themselves
  2. Ask them what they feel will rectify the issues and if reasonable entertain it
  3. Learn from the experience and the likelihood of them coming back will be quite high

That night I noticed my ex-boss was quite satisfied with the response so I guess he probably went back to that restaurant several times after our night out. By listening genuinely and paying heed to well-intended feedback we may become victims of our success through the upholding of high standards from product quality to customer service such that when something is off slightly, they may feel let down. That for you my friend is a good thing because it motivates you to set the bar high as it is the same metric by which your competitors will be judged.

Three lessons to help us improve are; be agile, accept complaints as your friend, maintain high standards. Many small businesses have used this track to scale up their businesses using the same practical lessons to sustain their growth. Remember that in the story it was David who won. I guarantee it will work for you, just try it and thank me later!

The Writer is the Managing Consultant at Capability Trust Limited a People and Learning Organisation serving the market with Talent Acquisition and Management, Leadership Development, HR Outsourcing, and General HR Advisory, Training, and consulting services. He can be reached on 059 175 7205,

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