So, I just got back from Forrester’s Customer Experience Forum in New York. This year, it was at the Marriott Marquis, right in the heart of Times Square. Now, if you’re like me and have lived in a rural (ok, backwoods) town for the past 10 years, Times Square can be pretty overwhelming. You feel like you’re wading through a sea of people with every step. You hear more languages and see more diverse cultures in a block than in an around-the-world trip. And the neon and pictures and street-hawkers and . . . and . . . and. It’s total information overload.

Even worse, I had arranged to meet clients in the middle of this chaos. I was lost and running late. The call was short but clear: “Can you hear us? We’re here. Where are you? We need to leave soon.”

For many market insights professionals, my experience in Times Square is a microcosm of reality. Many have been stuck in the back office, already struggling to meet present stakeholders' needs. Suddenly, you're thrust into an overwhelming sea of new data sources with an executive mandate to find the customers and figure out their needs. Worse, if you don’t do this quickly, your customers are going to leave.

So, how can you find, hear and meet the needs of your customers? This is THE question that smart professionals are asking. Why? Because we are in the age of the customer and “the only sustainable competitive advantage is knowledge of and engagement with customers,” to quote a must-read report by Josh Bernoff, “Competitive Strategy In The Age Of The Customer.”

If you aren’t trying to figure this out, I can tell you unequivocally that you are behind and causing your company to lose competitive advantage. How do I know this? Because this question was at the heart of every single conversation I had at the Forum and was the underlying driver of the achievements of companies such as USAA, American Express, and Office Depot, which showcased how they had become customer-centric (and even customer-obsessed).

On the way back from the Forum, I became engrossed in Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, Outliers: The Story of Success. As I followed Malcolm through explanations of the patterns that lead to individual success, I kept wondering: What will it take for market insights professionals to be successful in the age of the customer?

In an upcoming report, Forrester will lay out steps for a successful voice-of-the-customer research program; however, we would like to hear from you. What’s your advice for finding, hearing, and meeting the needs of customers while swimming through a sea of data and stakeholder demands?