Change How You Listen to Customers

Listen to the Heartbeat of Change: Customers' Needs Should Drive Innovation

Jeremy PollardBy Jeremy Pollard

I've had a very rough year for many reasons, and sometimes I look in the rear view mirror for any clues to the reasons why. A death in a family has no personal reasons or cause. Other things do.

While I was going through my mother-in-law's papers, I discovered that her financial advisor had done absolutely nothing in the 13 years since her husband died. Canadian rules are a bit different than in the U.S., but the point is that at age 71, you have to move your stuff to an income fund. The content of that fund—a collection of various mutual funds—hadn't changed since its inception. So things don't change? A person's requirements don't change? I was floored when I saw the statements.

Of course it had lost half its value because it was not a defensive portfolio, which it should have been at her age. Where was the advisor?

Now, I'm admittedly upset by this, but here's another, although less serious, example. I play drums in a band with a couple of guys. We mainly play for charity and the odd beer. I hadn't played for a while, so I decided to get some lessons to tune-up. I was referred to a professional teacher. When I told him I had jammed with Pat Travers in 1973, he actually seemed to be impressed.

I explained to him what I needed, since my age and distance from practicing had created some bad habits. He went off on a tangent about how he teaches, and how it really will make a difference for me when we get to sheet music reading. What? Where in the left-hand technique does reading music come in to this? I was dazed and confused. And I left.

A third incident—things come in threes, don't they—was a recent spa appointment with my wife. The therapist chats me up and asks why I'm there. I tell him. He then tells me how they do it. Hold it, chum. Was I not heard? Was I misunderstood? And yes, I didn't get what I wanted to spend my money on.

We have too many experts, advisors, teachers and mentors who have no idea how to listen well.

I talk a lot about innovation. You know the number of tech companies that pound the table at trade shows with their newfangled network switch or the muted attempts at a serial-to-Ethernet device server that companies have private-labeled in the Pacific Rim. But more importantly, where is the beef in the relationship between users, machine builders and vendors?

You're a machine builder. And you design and build production machinery, as well as some custom equipment. Many customers want particular functionality along with certain hardware.

A few too many times I've been with a client that complains about a machine builder not producing what the customer wanted. Is it because they don't listen? Is it cost-related? Is it that the OEM has no idea how to implement it?

Most, if not all, of the OEM professionals I know are very smart. But are they as tolerant of other people's ideas or desires as they should be? Is there too much of "We supply Brand X PLC, and that's it"?

Doing things the way we've always done them can be silly, especially when the person willing to pay for it wants something different. Listening to the request gets lost in the process and customers get bamboozled, believing they will get what they want, but come up short.

We are coming out of the recession. Maybe. But the general economic response will muted. So for a company to be successful, it will take even more resources than imagined. Tossing a PLC into a panel isn't going to cut it anymore. Integrated Brand X motion isn't going to cut it either. Flexible innovation is key.

Remember Gus from this column a few months ago? His management now asks him what needs to change. Gus is engaged, and he feels like he is part of the team. The innovative ideas he brings to the table are being heard.
We need a fresh, or at least rededicated, approach to design implementation and productivity; one that is seemingly illusive in the world of finance, person therapy and the arts.

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