Are we able to really listen to customers?

February 7, 2018

These are the words of a Marketing and Communications Executive when we recently presented back the insights we had gathered from his company’s customers. The interesting question is: what does the executive do now with that insight? 


I have worked in the past with senior executives and boards in the UK and Australia, particularly in the care sector, who have had similar moments of clarity, only to retreat back into the safety of the existing rhetoric and dismiss the current customer experiences that don’t align with it. Often the research methodology will be called into question (“Was it statistically valid?” “You didn’t speak to the right customers…”); at other times the messages are heard, but under-valued (“Yes, that’s what they say now, but we know what they actually need…”)


It’s a serious question. What do we do when we genuinely set out to listen to customers, and what comes back from them challenges long-held practices, behaviours and ideologies within our industry or business? My recent experiences have suggested that there is much the caring and hunan service industry could learn in this from more transactional services and sectors. I hesitate to refer to Uber, which has been much talked about as the ultimate industry disruptor, but I will, because the point I want to make is slightly different. Yes, Uber has disrupted, but it has disrupted a pretty transactional industry: how people move from a to b. My hunch is that not many people had previously thought of the taxi industry as a calling, a cause, a moral imperative or an expression of our shared humanity.


Yet when we consider some of the intractable challenges of society - how we ensure older people can thrive and live fulfilling lives whilst accessing support when and how they need it, how we can provide care and support with dignity and pride for and with people with profound disabilities, how we keep children safe whilst supporting families to build capacity and break out of intergenerational cycles of abuse and neglect… in these situations, genuinely listening to people and responding, even if that means setting aside deeply held philosophies and ideologies about what people need or ‘what’s best for them’, can be deeply challenging.


I think this is a tension many of our longstanding ‘for purpose’ organisations will need to grapple with in the years ahead, if they truly want to contend with the potential disruptors in their industries. Without years of ideology behind them, these new contenders in the market can find it easier to really listen to, observe and respond to the actual needs and values of customers in new and refreshing ways.


Perhaps the more passionately we hold to our cause, the longer we have lived and breathed it, the harder it is to set aside our assumptions about what reality is for people, what they value, and where we can have impact. Our traditional industry leaders will need to get very good at unpicking many years of rhetoric and allowing it to be challenged by the customer voice of today. Thankfully, I think the executive I mentioned at the start is able and willing to do just that.



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