How customer-focused do you think your company currently is? Learn how managers can encourage and support customer-oriented behavior.

Market-oriented. Customer-focused. User-centric. These are terms you’ve likely used or heard others use at your company. And for good reason – there is plenty of evidence that a customer-driven orientation increases the likelihood of success.

When we speak with product marketing and product management leaders, we hear these terms a lot, though often it’s in this context: “My product managers and marketers are too inward-facing. They need to be more customer-oriented.”

Of course, when we probe, we find that the problem is often not the product managers or marketers – it’s the executives and leaders. We may see underlying causes like these:

  • Travel and market research budgets are minimal, or they are the first budgets to get cut when there is financial pressure.
  • Executives and leaders unintentionally belittle market research if they disagree with the findings (“I read the summaries of your interviews with HR managers, but my neighbor is a HR manager and he said that…” or  “The one customer I visited two years ago said…”).
  • Executives and leaders spend little time interacting with customers and buyers, implicitly sending the signal that these activities aren’t important.
  • Executives and leaders don’t put in place individual goals directly tied to customer-facing activities for their direct reports.
  • Product managers and marketers have never been trained on the right techniques to use in different situations that might occur when they are interacting with customers.
  • Executives and leaders put up obstacles to customer-centric behavior or fail to remove existing barriers.

Product marketers and product managers certainly need to take responsibility for orienting themselves toward customers and understanding the market, but often their managers could do a lot more to encourage and support customer-oriented behavior.

This is not to say all executives and leaders are guilty of the wrong behaviors. In fact, quite the opposite is true. But if you are concerned that your staff is not appropriately market-focused, before blaming them outright, look in the mirror and see what you can do to help. (And if you’re a marketer or product manager who is trying to be more customer-focused but facing obstacles, maybe anonymously sending this blog post to your boss will help!)

Here are three suggestions for marketing and product leaders:

  • Make your actions match your words. Don’t say customer research is important and then cut budget for it. Don’t schedule four days of internal meetings and then complain when a product manager wants to spend one day visiting customers. Don’t overrule a decision based on customer data because you have a friend/hunch/idea that tells you otherwise. Support staff’s efforts to be more customer-oriented and push them to increase those efforts. Highlight examples of customer-focused behavior in regular communications. Build time into staff meetings for people to share what they’ve learned from recent customer visits or research. Ask what you can do to help your staff develop a better understanding of the market.
  • Model the type of behavior you expect of your staff. Block time on your calendar for customer visits and customer advisory board meetings, and treat that time as sacred. Set a personal quota each month or quarter for time devoted to listening to (not talking at) customers. Invite your staff along. Ask your direct reports when their next customer visit is schedule and ask to go along. Share what you’ve learned in recent buyer interactions. If your staff see you engaging in the types of activities that you consider to be valuable, they are likely to follow your lead.
  • Set your staff up for success. Great intentions can be sidetracked if people don’t have the skills, experience, confidence or availability to carry out the required activities. If staff members are dragging their feet on certain types of activities (e.g. observational research, customer advisory boards, win/loss analysis) because they are not confident in their abilities or unsure where to start, get them some help. If some product managers or product marketers have never done customer-focused activities, pair them up with experienced colleagues. If they say they don’t have time because of other priorities, work with them to reduce their time spent on internal, tactical activities so they can spend more time with customers.

How customer-focused do you think your company currently is?