Your Customer Has a Voice. Are You Listening?

Why hanging out with customers should be on everyone’s job spec


When was the last time you visited a customer?  If you’re in sales, it doesn’t count; that goes with the territory. I mean visited them purely to find out what’s on their mind. When running workshops, I often ask this question, and you’d be amazed how few people can honestly say they have looked a customer in the eye in the last 12 months. Taking time to learn about your customers first hand, face to face is a small investment that can yield big benefits.

Let me explain. It doesn’t matter how much you spend on market research—nothing can replace the real experience. It’s like the difference between reading a traveler’s guide to a country and actually visiting that country. I am by no means suggesting that market research doesn’t play a role because it does, but being able to visualize customers when you are making decisions that affect them can be very powerful.

In addition, seeing the environment in which your product or service is being used can identify issues or opportunities that might otherwise be missed. You may see that your customer has “MacGyvered” your product for a different purpose, or that the casing on your product has become so worn, the branding has disappeared. Issues like these may not be picked up in traditional market research.

Including a diverse mix of employees in customer visits is also important. Functional expertise, for example, can lead to different perspectives on the same situation. R&D, finance, HR, and even legal can all bring valuable insights from customer interactions.

Customers are usually more than happy to participate. Who doesn’t like to talk about themselves?  It’s like free therapy.

So what’s stopping you?

Concussions, Settlements, Cynicism, and Standards

The NFL’s concussion settlement might be more cynical than its decades-long deceptions on the topic.

While I have nothing to gain from the National Football League’s concussion settlement, I have been an interested observer. As I stated in an earlier commentary, I played the sport and understand its intensity. So, I take notice of big moves related to the concussion issue.

In a recent article in ESPN The Magazine, Peter Keating outlined how difficult it would be for a retired NFL player to be compensated under the NFL’s new concussion settlement the league is putting in place.

Just to put things in perspective, Keating writes the following:

First, to be eligible for compensation at any point, you must register with the settlement within 180 days of its final version’s being posted on its web site. Then, if you’re feeling symptoms, you must see a doctor approved by the settlement plan’s claims administrator. These basic hurdles, combined with athletes’ lack of awareness, will be enough to knock nearly 40 percent of potentially eligible players and families out of the deal, according to estimates by the NFL’s actuaries. That gets you from about 20,500 potentially eligible players to around 12,500, according to both sides.

Next, you will need to submit to a battery of 32 neurocognitive tests. Invented by the NFL, the players’ lawyers and their consultants, this scheme is new, untested and at points bizarre — one part is a 338-question exam about your psychological state and personality whose results won’t even be used to decide if you get compensation. Stern estimates that the whole thing will probably take you around five hours to complete, and if you give up or can’t finish — and remember, you are already feeling subpar; that’s why you’re getting yourself checked out — you are out of luck.

If you do get to the end of the assessment, you will need extraordinarily poor grades to qualify as neurocognitively impaired under the settlement. For eligibility, the deal requires players to score at least 1.7 standard deviations below expectations on multiple cognitive areas, including learning and memory and executive function. That’s worse than doctors often see in patients who already have moderate-stage dementia. “Most guys don’t realize how badly off you need to be,” says Stern. “You have to be really, really bad, basically unable to take care of yourself during the day.”

That’s not a settlement, it’s an insurance policy against payouts.

Basically, retired players are presented with a catch-22. In order to collect on the compensation offered, they have to be too impaired to complete the tests that are required in order to justify eligibility to collect.

Sometimes, cynicism is on display for all to see.

In this case, the NFL might have gone too far.

I write this because it involves a critical view of professional standards and their impact on the long term strategy of any organization. We all have to choose where we draw the line on supporting stakeholders of our brands, our organizations, and our communities. Some choices are more transparently cynical than others.

Kneecapping the retired performers its business depended on might not be the highest and healthiest long term play for the NFL.

What do you think?



NFL Actuaries and Defining Moments

The National Football League’s release of actuarial estimates on long-term cognitive impairment among its players is a real defining moment.

This one hits close to home for me.

Those who know me know that I grew up playing (American) football. I played through the collegiate ranks and had a brief taste of the most elite level as a lineman in the NFL. I understand implicitly the difference in intensity that exists in the game between the high school, college, and professional ranks–they are, to me, orders of magnitude different. If the average intensity of a high school game in a competitive league is a 10, then the NFL is 1000. No kidding.

This week, the National Football League released actuarial documents that show that its players are likely to develop significant cognitive problems far more frequently and at younger ages than the surrounding population. This article in the New York Times summarizes it nicely. 28 percent of the player population will develop “compensable injuries.” That’s right–nearly a third. What is more striking is the comparison of rates of disease. From the article:

“[Actuaries’] calculations showed that players younger than 50 had an 0.8 percent chance of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia, compared with less than 0.1 percent for the general population. For players ages 50 to 54, the rate was 1.4 percent, compared with less than 0.1 percent for the general population. The gap between the players and the general population grows wider with increasing age.”

Let’s be clear: That’s more than ten times the base rate of illness…with nearly a third of the player population likely to be affected. These are big, stark numbers that rise above the noise. Which brings me to my question: What is an ethical business leader to do when it is revealed that his or her product, which is creating social value for so many, is with statistical certainty destroying some of the lives involved in creating it?

We have what appears to be the NFL’s formula for action:

Step 1: Deny the link and glorify the at-risk population as “warriors for the cause.” Convince the warriors that they are part of something bigger in the moment. Argue that the already-affected stakeholders were compensated for the risk they took under contract.

Step 2: Isolate and make anecdotal the really egregious and sad cases (if you have free time, do an internet search for “Mike Webster Pittsburgh Steelers” on this topic). Make changes to working conditions and work rules to limit future injury (but without stating a link). Hand out pamphlets. “Study the problem.”

Step 3: Assess the litigation impact. Offer settlement. Release the actuarial data on a Friday. Get ready for Sunday’s games.

Is there a better way?

Perhaps, but the answer depends on where the affected stakeholders are in a business’ grand strategy. Sure, an organization can state that worker (or player, in the NFL’s instance) safety is a core value; but defining moments of a strategy occur when core values are in conflict.

Defining moments are when you, as a leader, have to choose between two “priorities.”

So far, the NFL appears to have chosen the “product” as its highest priority. If the product on the field is actually the result of a veritable meat grinder for the men playing it, then that’s what it takes. This is a rational, economically sound near term decision.

However, as its spectators and consumers start to see that they are cheering on the demolition of men’s minds to the tune of 7 out of the 22 men they are watching on the field, the NFL will face its next defining moment. That defining moment will be a choice between a quick profit strategy of cashing in on the remaining, dwindling fan and player base (boxing comes to mind as an analogy) versus a sustainable profit strategy that ameliorates the cause of stakeholder dissatisfaction–restructuring the game, equipment, and rules.

The NFL depends not only on its fans, but also on its product lifeblood in terms of a relatively diverse pipeline of player sources. As words gets out, both groups have higher potential to walk away–one could argue it is already happening at the margin. This is particularly true in the player source case, as the major feeders of talent to the NFL are colleges and universities who have no interest in propagating explicitly debilitating sports. In practical terms, the NFL should be going through a painful reordering of its hierarchy of core values (including product, health, sustainability, reputation, social value, etc.). The old hierarchy is obsolete over the intermediate term.

I’m not very old, but I grew up during the time when a guy getting concussed on the football field was kind of amusing–scary, yes, but not a life altering moment. Times have changed. The NFL has to change as well.

I’m not a lawyer and have no personal stake in the outcome of NFL litigation. This article is merely a reflection on the business implications of the NFL’s predicament. All errors as to action or timeline are my own.