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.

How To Improve Boardroom Decisions


Daylong meetings starting at 7:30 am behind closed doors. Continental breakfast with all the coffee you can drink. Lunch around noon…sandwiches or pizza…followed by early afternoon cookies, more coffee, and an occasional bottle of water. The day ends around 5:30 pm with a 30 minute break to “freshen up” before going out for a team dinner. Sound familiar? It does if you’ve ever experienced an executive, or Board-level meeting.

Many companies are currently knee-deep in 2014 planning sessions. Meetings like the one I’ve described above are taking place in different cities across the country…and the world. Lots of PowerPoint presentations, opinions, predictions, explanations, what-ifs, if-nots, and I-needs, fill hours upon hours of meetings. Interestingly enough one of the most important ingredients to building a successful strategy is missing from many of these discussions…the customer.

A fair number of companies execute their planning season with an inside-out view. They go into these sessions with closed minds, hindered by their narrow focus of what is, rather than what could be. This is not necessarily a purposeful or conscious approach, but it just seems to happen that way. We look at last year’s results, add 10% or whatever number we “think” sounds reasonable and build a plan around it. Again, sound familiar?

But companies that drive significant growth through innovation do it differently…they involve the customer.  Here’s some proof.

One of the best shows on television today is The C-Suite.  The show, and its host Jeffrey Hayzlett, focuses on getting behind the typically-closed-doors of some of the country’s biggest brands.  They dig around the executives thinking, ideas, philosophies and plans.  Hayzlett asks tough questions, the questions viewers would love to ask if they could – and he gets answers.

In a recent episode of The C-Suite on BloombergTV, host Jeffrey Hayzlett profiled the Seattle Sounders professional soccer team. He met with the owner and the executive leadership to understand how the Sounders have accomplished sell-outs (60,000+ seats) at every home game. In a previous episode he met with the executive team of Dunkin Donuts to have a similar conversation about what’s driving their growth. What was quite surprising and impressive is that while both these companies are in completely different industries their response was nearly identical…they both involve the customer.

Joe Roth, the majority owner of the Sounders, and Nigel Travis the CEO of Dunkin Brands, have both established customer advisory councils. The Sounders’ council consists of season ticket holders and Dunkin’s is made up of a group of their franchisees. Both councils provide ideas, thoughts, and reactions to their respective company’s strategy and plans. The Sounders go as far as involving their council members in discussions from ticket prices to player selection. They have given the brand to their customers and are reaping the benefits in a big way.  In fact their leap of faith has paid of five-fold.

It takes guts to listen to your customers.  Executive teams must also have the courage to act on what their customers tell them. Oddly enough the companies that have allowed their customers to “hijack” their brand have been extremely successful as profiled in the book Brand Hijack. Given their success it’s interesting to me that more companies don’t follow this approach. At the same time I find it unbelievable that many companies still don’t listen to their customers yet expect, or hope they continue to spend their money on their brands.

It’s great to see some companies really nailing the customer experience.  Asking, engaging, listening and acting upon what the customer says is so powerful.  Providing a forum for that exchange to take place is a best practice all companies should follow.  For many things in life there is no silver bullet.  But in business, knowing your customer is the best silver bullet you’ve got.  You simply need to do three things:  Ask, listen, and act.

Does your company do this?