Stay close to your customer, even if it is cliche

Several years ago I sat with one of my mentors and asked for his advice. He’d been a big-time CEO for several decades, and I felt like all of our conversations were steeped in lessons learned. But this time around, I wanted to know what he considered to be the one piece of wisdom he had learned over the years that had made him more successful than any other.

“Stay close to the customer,” he said.

It was a striking comment. Almost cliche.

For the next two hours, he shared stories about how he had stayed close to the customer. He explained how he derived vision from client conversations, strategy from client feedback and client satisfaction through, you’ve got it, client relationships. We talked about one on one visits, joining a client team and client symposiums.

I was struck by how maniacally focused my mentor seemed to be on his own personal involvement with customers and so I asked the questions all good entrepreneurs have been trained to ask.

“But, what about scale?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

I went on to remind him how as entrepreneurs we are continually reminded by advisors, peers, books and our teams to “stay out of the weeds.” We’re told to resist the temptation to have our hands in the business and focus on strategy and setting up the system.

He laughed.

“You’re never too senior, too big, or too good to meet with your customers, David,” he said. “You don’t have to drive the deal, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go along for the ride. You don’t have to be on the first call, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a relationship. How else are you going to understand your customer’s pain, form strategies, and know what’s really going on within your product or service?”

“In fact,” he said, “I learned, over the years, that one of my biggest concerns, the biggest red flag, were executives who reported to me and didn’t have meaningful client interaction. They tend to become corporate figureheads, isolated from realities and interpreting the world through second-hand knowledge.”

“And,” he continued, “ask yourself this. Those folks urging you to ‘get out of the weeds,’ how many of them have actually made the transition from successful entrepreneur to successful CEO? Listen, but don’t take their theories too far. From what I can tell, your problem is not getting too far into the weeds, it’s the temptation to abdicate responsibility in lieu of an idea of scale. You can never stay too close to your customer, or your employees, for that matter. Don’t undermine your leaders in the process, but stay close. Stay very close.”

Ouch. But true.

This advice never gets old. I find myself going back to it all the time. It’s easy to get caught up in thinking big thoughts that are divorced from the realities of the real-world on the ground. Every time I go back to talking directly with the folks at the crux of the business, whether it’s clients or employees, I find clarity that I never would have found through second-hand stories or the inner crevasses of my own head.