Article originally published on Forbes.
As the tech boom fizzles out of its hype phase, successful CEOs are using this time as an opportunity to turn inward. We can bear the bear market by shifting the focus from exponential growth to the value we create for our current customers.
One of the most impactful strategies to add value is simply by spending more time talking to your users.
Taking this customer-centric approach should be an all-hands-on-deck effort. Realistically, your leadership team doesn’t have time to carve out several user interviews each week. But building a culture where everyone in the organization is empowered to engage with customers and really listen to their needs? Not only is it possible, but both your team and customers will appreciate it.
As leaders, we need to promote a culture of being helpers. We are not gatekeepers. We are conduits to helping our customers achieve the most success. And that means giving your team permission and agency to talk to them.
How To Empower Your People
Most of your employees are not in the habit of collecting feedback from customers. Many don’t even talk to customers every day. Your engineers, your HR teams and even your marketers may not have access to the people who use your service. So it’s on you as their leader to design a top-down directive that everyone can follow.
Here are the principles that have worked at my companies:
• Encourage proactive customer outreach. Your role as a company leader is to promote proactive customer engagement and establish processes for collecting, analyzing and sharing user feedback. You cannot rely on passive feedback from customer support and sales teams. Ideally, your customer research, market research, product design, customer marketing and price discovery teams will all actively seek conversations with your customers.
• Expand the scope of customer and market research. The customer and market research organizations usually spend the most time talking to customers, so start here. Empower these teams to think cross-functionally and invite design, product management, engineering, marketing and other groups as active or passive participants.
• Record everything. Recording customer interactions is really easy and cost-effective nowadays. All major video conferencing platforms let you record conversations, and a myriad of tools like Marvin, Front, Intercom and Drift make it easy to save and share email, chat or other text messages. Even if you just record for easy retrieval later, rest assured that your product, design and engineering team has the raw data when they are talking about customers’ challenges. No more playing telephone with sales and support teams about feature requests and feedback.
• Socialize your expectations, repeatedly. Like any change, you want to proactively communicate guidelines to your employees. Regularly remind them that it’s not only OK to talk to customers, it’s encouraged. Tell them why customer conversations are important to the business and their careers. Celebrate the customer stories they capture in staff emails and at company meetings. Over time, the customer feedback loop will feel like it’s always been woven into your culture.
• Help them help each other. Encourage your customer success representatives to connect customers with various members of your organization. They have direct access to the people who most enjoy your products. They also have relationships with customers who can provide invaluable feedback on product improvements. Connecting these pieces together creates a culture of customer success across all channels.
• Make it easy to share. Build the infrastructure internally so everyone can learn and benefit from hearing the voice of the customer. We live in a TikTok world. People love watching short videos, so give your teams the means to share short clips and soundbites. In a company with thousands of employees, not everyone can easily talk to your users and customers. Making insights from user interviews easy to share and access in a digestible way fills this gap and gets everyone on the same page.
• Create a structure. Enable a system to track proactive customer outreach. Without it, you risk talking to the same people again and again. Empower your people to talk to customers, but ensure there’s structure and tracking happening in the background.
The Perceived Risks Are Not Reality
Inevitably, some leaders are reluctant to open up the invisible walls between employees and customers. Changing the organization’s DNA is understandably scary. But the companies that will come out of today’s tough market are the ones courageous enough to rewrite their playbook.
Empowering your people to talk to users is a win-win situation. You trust the people you hired, so allowing them to talk to your customers should be a zero-risk situation. With only benefits to gain by uncovering user insights, you’re on the path to creating a better user experience.
Some leaders are also concerned customers don’t want to talk to them. In reality, users want to talk to you — or at least give feedback. In my 12-year experience as a CEO and company builder, some of my biggest champions have been customers who initially gave negative feedback. Recognize that all feedback can be useful, and good customers genuinely do want to help you. Business relationships are built by people, and we’re creatures who thrive from relationships.
Your customers want to influence decisions so they can ultimately get more value out of your product.
Put Trust In Your Employees And Customers
Consider this one of the best investments you can make. I have never been disappointed in showing trust in my employees, and I’ve never had a customer get mad because I encouraged more employees to talk to them. Most people want to help you create a better product, so they’re relieved you’re asking them for direct input. In the long run, connecting with customers only creates better empathy within your organization and results in a better-designed product. The simplest way to achieve that is to reach out to customers.
Everyone talks about focusing on the customer. But that’s only possible if everyone is talking to the customer.