Put Yourself In Their Shoes

shoes by peter griffin“Put yourself in the shoes of your customer.  Try to think like them and you’ll be able to improve your service to them.”

This idea recently appeared as the main story line in a B2B publication.  I’m sure that many readers of that publication find this logic to be unassailable.  Many of us have heard that advice throughout our lives – put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Whereas it might be an effective way to move a person away from a self-centered mentality, it can lead a business astray.  Let me give you an example.

Several years ago I was doing qualitative interviews in the grocery industry to design a program for Kraft.  On this day I was sitting in a conference room at a warehouse owned by a grocery chain in Texas.  The warehouse management team told me a story I’ll never forget.  I’ll paraphrase:

Baby food is a very difficult item to work with in this facility.  We laid out exactly how we wanted the pallets loaded to make it easier for us to handle the product.  We sent that to all of our baby food suppliers.

 Gerber – the leading brand in baby food – packed their pallets differently for each shipment, never coming close to the layout requested by our team.  It drove us crazy.

 One day a team from Gerber was at our facility to meet on another topic and in this exact conference room.  Before the meeting got started one of the Gerber people asked, “How do you love the way we’re packing those pallets for you?”  It wasn’t really stated as a question, but instead as request for praising their efforts.  Really?

 Our whole team was really taken aback – too stunned to respond.  Finally, one guy made a statement for all of us:  “We hate it.  Why don’t you ship the product the way we request?”

 Now it was the Gerber team that was stunned.  They replied that they had spent a considerable amount of time thinking about what they believed would be best for their customers – us included.  They came up with a novel pallet packing design that they thought would make it easier for everyone.

 “Doesn’t work for us and we suspect it doesn’t work for others,” was the reply we gave them.

 This led to an in-depth discussion and Gerber changed their system.

What a story!  And we’ve heard it several times across a variety of industries.

We conduct a program called the Employee Mirror with many of our clients.  Part of the program includes a survey with employees that asks them to state how they believe customers will evaluate them in all key areas – the same areas that the customer is asked to evaluate them.

We’ve done hundreds of these programs over time.  What do we find?

  1. When grouped together, the results are scattered all over the place.  There’s no concentration that reflects a group consensus.
  2. Occasionally different departments or functional areas have a tighter grouping, reflecting somewhat of a group belief – it’s still very different from that of the customer.
  3. More successful companies tend to rate themselves lower than the customer on most evaluations. These companies set high expectations and are concerned that they’re still below the bar for the customer.
  4. Although still far from the customer, customer contact employees tend to be the closest internal group to the customer while the executive team tends to be farthest from the customer’s actual evaluations.

These findings tell us that it’s tough to get an accurate read on the customer by asking employees to put themselves in the customer’s shoes. With the best of intentions, an organization designs a product, service or process that they believe will provide their customers with significant value.  Too many times this effort just doesn’t pay off.  The organization questions their execution and/or increases the intensity.   Again, nothing happens or, worse, their customer relationships and behaviors go lower.

Nothing substitutes for asking the customer directly.

Posted in Blog, Consumer Products, Insights, LRC Blog.

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