Customer Focus is All About the Shoes

A wealthy American tourist was walking through an open-air market in East Africa. He stopped at a fruit stand where a woman was selling bunches of bananas. He asked her, “How much is one bunch of bananas?” Upon learning the price, he asked, “How much if I buy all your bananas?”

The woman smiled and shook her head, “I'm sorry sir, but I cannot sell you all of my bananas. It's early in the day. What will I say to all my other customers who come to me and are disappointed because I have no bananas to sell them?”

It's All About the Shoes

The leadership competency of Customer Focus is all about which shoes you're wearing. We've all heard the saying about walking a mile in another person's shoes to better understand them. The woman selling bananas put herself in the shoes of her customers, and she thought about their disappointment at finding no bananas to buy from their favorite vendor.

It would have been easier for her to make one sale and go home early, but only from the perspective of the business. Not from the view of the customer.

The ideals of customer service have evolved over time: from the old maxim “the customer is always right,” to the new focus on creating “raving fans,” to the cutting edge of creating amazing “experiences.”

Trends change, but each phase of this evolution still rests on the basic capacity of empathy. Empathy is putting yourself in someone else's shoes to think about their needs and their experience.

Customer Focus: the Intersection of Leadership & Service

I've written in this space before about the intersection of leadership and customer service, where each person interacting with a customer feels the responsibility and the authority to find solutions and make things right without getting permission from above. Empathy is fundamental to leadership; being able to put yourself in someone else's position and then personally taking action to meet the needs that a customer would feel.

If you want to master the skill of Customer Focus, consider these two exercises. The first has to do with service inspired by empathy, and the second has to do with practicing a key influence skill of leadership.

1. Develop Your Service Skills

Service is not glamorous, because it often takes time and looks like work. To develop your service skills based on empathy, invest the time to walk through your workplace or work processes as if you are a customer. Begin by simply trying to find your business. Can you find it online? Is it easy to drive to? Are signs clearly marked for entrances and where to park? Can you find relevant phone numbers to connect to someone you might need to talk to as a customer?

Walk through your physical space and think about how a customer would experience your workplace. How easy is it for customers to navigate your website your phone system or your internal employee network?

This exercise does not really have an endpoint, because you can put yourself in the customers' shoes in an infinite variety of scenarios. Ask yourself what customers can do when things go wrong and how they could find satisfaction. This exercise will build your empathy and understanding of what it's like to be a customer, which will fuel your focus on meeting their needs and serving them.

2. Apply Your Influence Skillfully

I have often said that the most critical, and yet under-used, skill of leadership is listening. Active listening is a powerful influence approach. People who feel heard are more open to your influence than those who feel ignored or resisted.

Develop your skills by listening attentively and at length to people who are hard to listen to. Notice how you are tempted to jump in and begin offering solutions or countering their points. As you notice this tendency, consciously replace it with asking follow-up questions before you begin to formulate an answer. I have found that true understanding lies underneath three to five layers of questions.

Persist and persevere in asking questions until the speaker begins to nod their head and recognize that you have understood. At this point, you have earned the right to use your influence to lead and guide the customer to a satisfying solution that also fits with your business.

The Shoes Don't Always Fit

The shoes of the customer don’t always fit well—meaning that as you grow in the skill of Customer Focus, it may put you in uncomfortable situations. Processes may need to change. Priorities may need to change.

When you learn Customer Focus, you may need to change things about your own leadership or behavior. The nexus of leadership and service is not an easy place to be, but the rewards are greater trust, more loyal customers, and the satisfaction of knowing that you have made a difference for someone else.

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