The Ivory Tower Vs. The Customer

ivory tower

Throughout my career I have observed a significant disconnect between C-Suite executives and the customer. I have often wondered why the people with the most power to influence change seem to go to extremes to avoid direct contact with their customers. Meetings are held, strategies are developed, and plans are made all in the name of doing the right thing for the customer – responding to their needs. But how do these executives know what their customers want? They haven’t talked to their customers, met with them, or corresponded with them. They gather input from their key lieutenants, assuming they know. But have they met directly with their customers? No. I have found this phenomenon quite intriguing and have developed some insights as to why this happens.

Television shows like Undercover Boss highlight the disconnect between the Ivory Tower and the customer. The CEOs, COOs, or Presidents go “undercover” to see how things are really working in the field…which is a technical term for real life. My only hope is that most of what is seen on television programs like this one are fiction, to at least some extent. If not, we’re all in big trouble if our executives are that disconnected from the real world.

I believe there are 3 reasons many executives avoid meeting or interacting directly with their customers preferring to take refuge in their Ivory Tower. These reasons tend to be driven more by the executives emotions that tangible difficulties of scheduling time to be in the field. My observations of why these senior executives avoid direct customer interaction include:

1. Already paid dues
2. Fear of not being able to solve the customer’s problem
3. Fear of embarrassment in front of sales or service representatives

Some executives feel they’ve paid their dues and spent enough time in the field as they built their careers creating an imbalance between these aspirations and being truly customer-centric. I’m not saying that focusing on building a career is wrong. What I am saying is that as long as you maintain a genuine focus on the customer career progression usually follows. Once the focus on the customer is lost, in favor of  bigger and better executive perks, an attitude of entitlement develops.

Another reason executives keep out of the field is their fear of not being able to solve the customers problems. Your product isn’t working as advertised, it costs too much, your service is terrible. These are all real life comments I have heard when in the field. They are not easy to deal with especially if the complaint is focused on an area of the business outside of your control. If the Sales executive receives a complaint about service they may feel helpless in providing a satisfactory resolution. But why? One way to eliminate this fear is to build strong relationships with your peers across the business. A simple call to the head of Operations – providing there is a strong and trusting relationship – can quickly provide the resolution necessary to save a client. Many times however these relationships are overlooked or get sidelined in favor of other activities. Life and business are all about relationships. No matter what your level, take the time to foster good relationships at work. You never know when you’ll need them.

Finally I’ve seen first hand how many executives seem to “freeze” when they are in the field with a sales or service representative. Because of the disconnect that exists between the executive and real life, they lose touch with the customer and their ability to empathize is impaired. This impairment becomes visible to the customer and the sales or service representative creating an awkwardness during these encounters. The key to a successful executive field visit lies with the executive’s ability to blend humility with a genuine focus on learning about the customers wants and needs. Showing the sales or service person respect in their arena creates an environment that fosters trust and allows for learning to take place.

How often are your executives in the field? When was the last time your CEO, President, or head of Sales went on a customer visit with you? What do you think the right frequency is for executive field visits? Let me know.

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