We often hear stories of back-from-the-dead experiences of businesses that lost their way but then they hired a super-duper CEO who saved them by asking everyone to adopt a customer focus attitude. What is customer focus, actually? If this is the remedy then why not have that attitude all the time?

Some companies hire market researchers to tell them what the customers want. They will scour their respondent database, organise workshops, run surveys and after careful data filtering and analysis they give their clients the result of their research pointing to key customer requirements.

Others will get their customer service division to re-structure their support services to an impeccable level to increase the customer satisfaction. They say, “We have become more customer focused“.

Others will invest in business relationship management, beefing up account management, client functions, organise events aiming to impress their customers and understand their wants and wishes through collected feedback.

All the above methods work well, but the results have been mixed. There are two problems with these methods: 1. The customer’s mind is difficult to read with artificially engaging research tools, and 2. The customer may not be aware of their real needs, thus direct feedback will lack an essential ingredient.

The problem with these methods is that they have this distinct appearance of rigid corporate programs which risk turning off the interest of the customer the moment you mention them. In absence of anything else, these tools were great, but today they are not only unappealing, they are insufficient because they are not suited to capture the fluid nature of customer.

A customer focus does wonders when it offers a deep understanding of what makes a customer be. Asking questions through questionnaires or one-off face-to-face meetings reveal only some aspects of it. To have a better understanding you need to be exposed to the customer’s behaviour in a social setting unperturbed by artificial questionnaires. This is an authentic social environment in which new aspirations and challenges are created through the confluence of many factors.

There is this ad for a baby food company that shows a marketing guy hiding in all sorts of strange places to spy on moms to see how they feed their baby child and what problems they have in the process. One mum is aware of the espionage activity going on but she smiles with tacit approval of this stealth operation. Of course, in reality she would freak out to see a spy in her room like that, but the point here is that a company needs to make a huge effort to really understand how the customer lives and works.

Having a customer focus is a social act not an intellectual exercise. You cannot achieve a deep level of understanding unless you know what the customer’s social environment is.

There are two consequences to this enunciation. The first is that the company must go social. The company must invest in integrating social tools, practices and thinking into its business ethos. The other one is that the customer needs to acknowledge that mingling with others on social platforms is an open affair. This is fast becoming a fact of life and they need to understand how to manage their privacy and adapt to their own advantage.