Customers: You Heed Them, Now Lead Them

In my previous column, we talked about the learning side of teaching: that is, actively listening to our customers via surveys we send to elicit responses. (As if a survey could tell us what women really want. We are 50.2 percent of e-customers, controlling 80 percent of the disposable income in the United States. All we want is respect and value; getting them, however, is another matter.)

The Teaching Side of Learning

After you’ve digitized, organized, and prioritized customer comments into your sensitively relational metadata knowledge base, what do you know? You know in excruciating statistical detail their opinions of your existing products and what they think they want next. Sure, that’s important. Yes, you should heed it. But is that the best you can do for them — be led by their vision? Didn’t you get into business because you had a vision? Led anybody to your vision lately?

Tom Peters offers cryptic words of wisdom about “leading” customers in his current collection of seminar slides (he calls them the red meat of his presentations). Consider them food for thought (your brain needs nourishment, too). With all the customer-focused, customer-centric buzz (all of which is true, as far as it goes), we sometimes forget that our job is also to help customers solve today’s problems and even take leaps to consider tomorrow’s. (Check out Tom’s slides for a typical full-day seminar. It’s better than the halftime show at the Super Bowl.)

With or without taking in a few Tom-isms, try getting excited about what you bring to your customers — vision, leadership, and products. You wouldn’t be in business if you didn’t have something of value to offer, so offer it proudly. If you just follow your customers, you’ll only fulfill a statistical prophecy — you and the herd of mediocrity that’s doing the same thing. If your industry’s customer base is shaped like a bell curve (and they all are), the bulk of the market is in the middle. That’s the biggest part of the target, and it’s where all your competitors are aiming. They’re using CRM sonar to determine where that juicy target is and give it what it says it wants.

A Bit of Daring

If that’s the best you can do — and it’s not bad — get into the fray, and slug it out with the rest of them. Beat them on customer service or whatever other common feature you excel at. But what if you have a different vision? What if you dare to lead your customers?

Risky business! Maybe you have to listen more closely around the fringes of the bell curve to find yourself a lucrative niche market into which few competitors are aiming. Or maybe you should aim at the big belly of the bell curve with a radically new concept, service, or product. All you’ll risk is looking foolish. Scared yet?

Now take a look at what makes innovators look foolish: big-splash failures. If you build up expectations of achievement beyond any level you have solid evidence of… well, what do you think will happen? That route is for people who’ve never heard of beta tests, test markets, or trial balloons.

But if you’ve got customers already, you’ve got some customers with a sense of adventure. Invite them in on the experimental phase of your new product. Remember the concept “If you build it, they may come; if they build it, they’re already there“? If you get a small cadre of customers excited about your latest brainstorm, then listen to their test results and suggestions, you’ll have a healthy batch of testimonials on hand when you raise the curtain on what your vision brought forth for the world to see.

What would you rather have on your tombstone: “He listened to us” or “She amazed us”? Would you prefer: “She gave us what we wanted” or “He expanded our vision”?

Yeah, I thought so.

For inspiration, look in diverse places:

  • A Korn/Ferry International study of leadership in the 21st century found that the No. 1 yardstick of effective leadership will be…. Well, read it for yourself.

  • The U.S. Department of Education (of all places!) has put together a neat little consideration of vision in leadership. Is it an epiphany or purposeful tinkering? Is it top down or bottom up? Take a look, and decide.


If it’s later than 10 a.m., you need to take a break. You know yourself; choose a bumper sticker or tag line that expresses the real you. If you need coaching, you know where to find me.

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