Real Leadership Means Listening To Your Customers

I recently blogged about the problems some executives have identifying with their own customers. The Institute of Customer Service research I referred to shows clearly that many executives have no idea what the customer really wants and don’t appear to care about the information their subordinates send up the boardroom.

But is this attitude just one part of a wider issue in modern management today?

Is there an inherent fear of showing empathy with customers because this could be mistaken for weakness in the power-hungry executive world that company leaders inhabit today? I can’t remember reading about any MBA course that teaches humility and empathy as key attributes for leaders. In fact, most executive education appears to be teaching managers to be warriors, rather than listeners.

When does this ‘Gordon Gekko’ approach go wrong? Obviously for Mr Gekko, breaking the law was his downfall, but take a look at how many company leaders face enormous problems because they just failed to apologise after a problem. They tried to ignore the bad news or to just tough it out as customers complained and the problem just increased.

Product recalls are an excellent example. Cynical commentators have long believed that product recalls only happen if the expected product problem may cost more in legal damages than the recall cost. Smart leaders have realised that the equation involves reputation and trust too. Coming clean about something that may only potentially be a problem for customers, and offering a voluntary recall, may in fact only have a limited cost and yet have a highly positive value for the reputation of a company that is looking out for the customer.

The business press is full of insincere apologies by corporate leaders that have had a direct impact on the share price of the business. Telling the truth and connecting to customer needs has to be good for business even if some communication advisers believe that the less said publicly, the better. The faulty present-day conventional wisdom appears to be that leadership can only be achieved by listening less.

I believe that the executive team not only needs to start apologising earlier for their errors, but also should be closer to their customers in the first place. In many business case studies of failed apologies or product recalls the connecting thread is that the leaders just didn’t really appear to know what their customers were thinking.

With the buzz monitoring and brand analysis tools available today there is no excuse to remain ignorant of what people really think of your brand or service. But there is a difference between increasing awareness and actually listening. Get out there and find out what your customers really think about your service. It may be a surprise.
Greed is good

Photo by CarnageNYC licensed under Creative Commons.

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