One of the core themes of my latest book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, is that the best bosses go to great lengths to develop empathy for both the people they lead and the customers served by their teams and organizations. Managers and executives sometimes claim to me that just by looking at sales statistics, aggregated demographics stats, and -- now and then -- reading compilations of customer complaints and compliments is enough to understand their customer's needs. They often claim they don't have the time or resources to watch and talk to customers or potential customers first hand.
I am all for quantitative data, but there is a story in Chapter 5 of Good Boss, Bad Boss that I believe shows there is no substitute for the power of first hand observation:
When bosses make concerted efforts to understand what it feels like to be a customer, it is remarkably useful for making gaps between knowledge and action vivid and identifying possible repairs. To illustrate, SYPartners (SYP), an innovation firm based in San Francisco and New York, worked with up-and-coming executives from a big company to develop new financial services for immigrants. The executives arrived with armloads of binders packed with data-rich PowerPoint decks -and were excited about how well they had mastered the charts and statistics. They got nervous when SYP told them they weren't going to use that stuff, and instead, would be shadowing customers.
SYP broke the team into trios, assigned each a Spanish-speaking translator and Spanish-speaking undocumented worker, and sent them out into the Mission District in San Francisco. Each team was asked to cash a check in a bank, wire money to a Central American country at Western Union, and observe the undocumented worker do the same things. Before the observations, these executives knew from their quantitative data that these untapped customers represented a huge opportunity. But their impressions of what these customers wanted - and would happily pay for - were far off the mark. The shadowing, hands-on efforts, and discussions with undocumented workers provoked them to transform and broaden the offerings they suggested to their firm. One executive called it "life-changing" and said he would never look at a marketing opportunity the same again. The executive who initially felt most uncomfortable about following around an illegal immigrant came away most transformed - arguing adamantly that reams of data aren't enough, that you need to understand what your customers do and how it feels to do be them.
In other words, the best bosses know what it feels like to work for them and what it feels like to be one of their customers too! The closer you can get to an unvarnished and uncensored perspective of the humans that you lead an serve, the better you can understand their needs and what you can do to feel those needs.
P.S. Toward that end, a couple years back I was talking to an executive from a major airline about how crummy the experience was of flying coach -- how everything from the legroom to the rude staff made it an awful experience. He dismissed my complaint, but eventually admitted that it had been years since he flew coach on any airline. Perhaps that is one reason that Southwest has stayed so successful for so long -- there are no first class seats for their executives hide in! Along similar lines, I once talked to a senior executive from a large chain for grocery stores who admitted that he had not shopped at one of his stores or the stores of any of his competitors in over a decade -- sometimes, going out and seeing and feeling things for yourself is better than pouring through a huge pile of statistics.
As two counter examples, it is interesting that Disneyland executives spend a lot of time in the parks, not just watching, but actually doing jobs (One told me she had recently spent a day in a Mickey Mouse costume). And it is also instructive that Steve Jobs has devoted so much time to visiting (especially after hours) the first Apple Store -- which is just blocks from his house. Rumor has it that he has made numerous changes in the technology, layout, and even the Apple bags they put your merchandise in.
Thanks to Robert I. Sutton / PsychologyToday