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Melbourne Business School News Why the key to understanding customers is to get away from your desk

Why the key to understanding customers is to get away from your desk

Most people know the importance of understanding their customers, but few managers follow through with putting the idea into practice.

Melbourne Business School Senior Consultant Greg Harbidge

"Lots of managers miss it, because in the business of each day at work, there's pressure to meet deadlines and get things done," says Greg Harbidge.

"People often get seduced into being action-oriented and think that action is delivering. The risk is that you might not slow down, stop and ask the question: 'Are we actually delivering the right things?'"

Greg is a leadership and innovation expert who teaches on the Design Thinking for Managers and Leading in the Digital Age programs at Melbourne Business School.

One of his biggest pieces of advice for managers who are trying to make space to empathise with customers is to unchain themselves from their desk.

"You need to observe customers in their natural environment. They need to be comfortable so you can learn the most about them," Greg says.

"Just giving yourself permission to get away from your desk to spend some time talking to your customers – not selling, but trying to understand their needs – can make a huge difference.

"One of those benefits is that those customers start to appreciate you and your business more because they've been heard."

For some managers, the process of sitting with a customer and listening to them for 15 to 20 minutes might not feel comfortable straight away – but it's a skill that can be developed over time.

"For many people, the customer isn't someone they see day-to-day, so they don't necessarily have the natural rhythms, the natural ways to talk and engage with customers," Greg says.

"Your first few conversations might feel clumsy – but that's OK. After each conversation, take a couple of minutes and ask yourself not just about what you learned on the topic, but about how well you were listening. You want to give the customer the respect they deserve as the expert in their own lives."

Another of Greg's tips is to consider bringing customers behind the scenes to give feedback during the 'working phase' of projects when it's safe to do so.

"There was a participant on one of our recent programs who worked in corporate affairs," he says.

"One of her reflections on the program was that she could apply Design Thinking principles to something as simple as designing a communications flyer. Typically her team would wordsmith a flyer, design, finalise and distribute it without getting any input from a customer.

"After thinking about it, she thought: 'You know what? I'll encourage my team to create a draft, and then we'll send it out and have a conversation with one or two of our corporate partners, and with their input, iterate it'.

"That's an example of finding a simple, time-efficient way to put the customer at the core."

It's also an example of how seeking feedback from customers may occasionally run counter to the instincts of a manager who prides themselves on the quality of their work.

"It's not always a natural thing," Greg says of the process.

"People aren't regularly sending out unfinished work because there's a fear of judgement, and also a worry that if they show the customer something before the final product, they might be seen as inadequate or unprofessional.

"But more and more, customers understand and appreciate the involvement. What you can do is explain to them that you're trying to embrace a new way of working that includes more customer feedback and input to make sure you're delivering the right thing.

"Just with that simple framing, it can make a world of difference."

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