GREAT ENTREPRENEURS launch their businesses based on customer insights. In many cases they are "frustrated customers."

For example, a building contractor takes a family driving trip in the early 1950s and is outraged by the conditions and prices of accommodations in "tourist cottages." Thus began Holiday Inn. Two lovers at Stanford grow frustrated with their email systems' inability to communicate. They seize upon a product developed by a kindred spirit in the Department of Medicine, leading eventually to commercialization of something called a router and a company named Cisco. In distribution, Richard Sears, Fred Smith, Foster McGaw were geniuses at projecting into the mind of the customer, and revolutionized their industries.

Inevitably, even great ventures begin to exhibit erosion in their understanding of the customer. Why does that happen? Usually "distractions" are to blame-building the organization, setting up controls, answering to analysts and regulators. Direct exposure to the market is replaced by the routine and institutionalization of marketing research departments and an accumulation of sales field memos, customer satisfaction surveys, industry reports. Customers are entertained at conventions. All sensible steps, but no substitute for "becoming the customer.

The great irony is that most people love to talk about their business. And yet, we stop listening-especially in a creative way. If we take the time to listen to a cross-section of people from a customer organization talk about their business, their goals, their frustrations (instead of talking about ourselves, our products/services), there are insights to be gained. If we come to an understanding of their business model, how their world is changing, what is sub-optimal, imperfect, or what needs to be preserved we just might be able to improve our value proposition to them.

And, do not expect the customer to give us the "answer." It is our job to understand them and our capabilities and to develop creatively a superior and profitable value proposition. Perhaps it is time to get back to "becoming the customer."

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