I always think that certain things were taught in “Leadership 101” class, but when I read articles like this one – I sometimes realize how easy it is to lose touch with your customers as your business grows or you climb the corporate ladder.

The link is to an open letter from a senior RIM (the makers of the Blackberry) executive to the RIM co-CEO’s. It asks them to change the company by listening to what RIM’s customers and employees are asking for.

This concept shouldn’t be rocket science.  I mean, who is closest to your customers anyway?  In my organization, it’s the account executives and the engineers/consultants.  They are in front of customers every day and hear what they need, what they don’t need, what they have an easy time finding and what they can’t find help with.  Also, keep in mind that it’s not always what you sell that makes customers use you or leave you – it’s also how you do business, your processes, your approach and all interactions they may have with you.

Employee Pyramid

Last time I checked, delivering solutions that customers want and need is the easiest way to increasing revenues.  Trying to sell services or products that customers don’t need or can get from a multitude of sources is a great path to extinction.  Also, listening to employees at all levels helps you create a more efficient organization and one with a more positive work environment – employees like to know you are hearing what they are saying and are reacting to it.

Other than directly meeting with my customers, which I continue to do no matter how much I have on my plate, I use a multitude of approaches to listen to what my customers and employees want.  While these have worked well in my small business (under 50 employees), I’m confident they can be adjusted to support larger businesses too.

Monthly All Hands Meetings – These meetings present to all employees our wins, losses, financial information, new customers, largest customers, active and upcoming projects, employee of the month and also allow me to highlight specific achievements of company employees.  At the same time, I ask for feedback from all employees on what they have heard “on the street” over the last month, ideas for change and evolution of the organization, ideas for new service or solution offerings, responses from customers on our current offerings and more.  The meeting is concluded with a best practice presentation, hopefully leaving all employees with more skills and information than when they entered the room.  Sometimes we discuss employee feedback during the meetings and sometimes we schedule additional meetings to delve further into details – but everything brought up is followed up on.  Employees understand that we can’t change everything they suggest, but they appreciate having an open environment on a regular basis to discuss their thoughts.

Employee Lunches – Every quarter I have lunch with every employee in the company.  Sometimes these are one on ones, but more often I bring two to three people to lunch.  While the “all hands” meetings provide a larger open forum, the lunches provide for a more intimate setting to bring up issues, concerns or ideas that employees may be uncomfortable discussing in a broad forum.

Open Door Policy – I encourage all employees to meet with me at any time about anything.  They understand that conversations will be kept confidential (if necessary) and that there will be no “retribution” for bringing up issues and concerns.  Many of our procedures and approaches have been modified to become more efficient and customer focused due to people telling me how current policies are junk.  I do require the old adage of “One problem, two solutions” for the open door policy though – don’t tell me something is wrong without having an idea of how to fix it.

Customer Surveys – Twice a year we send out surveys to all customers who have done business with us over the last six months.  In these surveys we ask a significant number of questions about pre-sales, sales, delivery and support.  We also ask about future needs and technologies.  These surveys are reviewed by a professional market research company to ensure the questions can be correlated and that information can be extracted that’s useful.  Upon completion of the survey process, the market research firm compiles the results and tells us how we’re doing, what needs to be adjusted and what customers are looking for in the future.  We give away three iPod’s to random respondents and see over a 90% completion rate on our surveys as a result.

Remember that the lower your employee is in the corporate structure, the closer they tend to be to the customer.  These employees are a valuable source of insight to adjust and modify your company practices and what you have to offer to customers – and the information they can provide is both free and priceless.  Make the time to listen.

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Chris is currently the Chief Innovation Officer at Internet Marketing Ninjas where he manages M&A activity, legal work, and also focuses on the use of technology and other solutions to lead innovation and growth. Prior to this, Chris led the sale of his $10mil information technology company, twice an Inc500 fastest growing company in the US, to an investment banking firm in NYC. He has a strong passion for sailing, and had the opportunity to spend two years travelling from Lake Champlain to the southern Bahamas and back with his family.

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