To know your customers, listen to each customer


Do you impose your processes on your customers? Or do you truly know their individual preferences and adapt to make their lives easier with your product or service?

Knowing one’s customers is a business truism, one of these things we go “Oh, yeah, sure.” But have you asked yourself how much you really know about each customer? This is a scary exercise because we are few, and customers are many. The same customers can also react differently in different circumstances, change their mind, or worse, change their preferences.

Marketing studies can give you an overall idea about customer populations and profiles, but that is not likely to help you in either:

  • Value Analysis: improve the current process to better please customers now!
  • Value Engineering: design the next product/service and process to satisfy customers tomorrow.

On the other hand, customers talk to you everyday, but the chances are you are not set up to capture what they tell you. As Steve Parry has argued in Sense and Respond, we can distinguish the following messages from customers:

  • More: customers asking you more of what you’re already doing, even when you don’t have the capacity to deliver.
  • Restitution: customers asking you to restitute value when you’ve done something not to their liking, either in terms of rework, refund or penalties.
  • Something else: customers asking you to do something which is not part of your offer as either product or service, and your reaction is: we don’t do that.
  • Partners: customers asking you one of the previous three topics concerning a firm you partner with and that is bundled with what you offer, but on which you have no direct control.
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  • I you start by answering each of these questions by the most obvious thing that comes to mind and, from then on, make an effort to quantify customer requests, you’ll find that you can quickly garner a much deeper understanding of your customer’s own business model and lifestyles, and what really matters to them beyond the basic performance of the product or services.

The fundamental lean quality question is: What do customers come to us for that they wouldn’t expect to find anywhere else?

The only way to figure that out, is to listen for it more intensely, and make our processes more flexible so that we do not impose a “one size fits all” solution to all customers for the sake of process optimization or standardization.

Customers “liking” what we do is not enough. We have to aim for customers loving what we do.


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