It seems to be an unfortunate fact of business life – as companies are successful and grow, they lose some or most of what made them successful: their focus on understanding their customers and what benefit they deliver to them. Whether managers become too busy running the company to focus on customers, or customers change what they want from the company, that disconnect leads to slower growth, less success, and opens the door to customer defection, and new competitors.
“What Business Are We In?”
The mission of every business is to satisfy a customer need and to deliver a benefit to the customer. Maintaining a single-minded focus on that mission means that businesses must have an external focus: they must continually look at their business from the outside in, the perspective of the customer and the market.
Paul Shoemaker, writing with George Day of the Wharton School of Business in Inc., identifies four benefits of maintaining an external focus:
- The world is changing rapidly, and customers are reacting to that change. Maintaining an external focus allows your business to keep ahead of those changes, to identify and react to emerging opportunities and threats.
- Again, from Shoemaker, “When everyone in the company is attuned to the customer experience and its pain points, there is more likely to be a wide-ranging and ongoing search for pain relief.” This organically developed continuous improvement philosophy drives growth.
- When everyone in your company focuses on the external, the company aligns in solving problems. Fewer turf battles, no silos, and more collaboration result in greater productivity, innovation, and improved customer experience.
- We exist in a complex and inter-related world. By focusing on the world outside your business, you will identify opportunities with suppliers, large customers, and even competitors to partner to create solutions for your mutual customers. You will benefit together by better serving your customers.
Maintaining External Focus
The goal of maintaining a focus from the outside in is challenging. Not all managers will respond to the same programs to develop an understanding of the customer. Catherine Bailey, Professor at Cranfield School of Management, offers these tips for maintaining an external focus in your business:
- Expose managers to diverse thinking by bringing in speakers.
- Assess and encourage the development of external perspectives among top executives.
- Include external perspective development in professional development goals, career and succession planning at all levels of management.
- Encourage networking, participating in external events, benchmarking external practices, personal reading and research, and attending industry conferences.
A key to all of this, however, is an ongoing program of customer and prospect research and competitive intelligence. Regularly surveying the market and reporting those findings back to the company is the most important first step for maintaining an external focus. Again, Shoemaker, paraphrasing an American President, advises: “Ask not what you can do for your company, but what your company can do for its customers.”