To truly reach your customers, you need to understand where they’re coming from—what they want and need in your product or service. But you don’t need to shell out a bunch of money on focus groups and marketing research. You can do the research yourself for much less. How? By learning to think like your customer and teaching your employees to do the same. Once you master this, customers will flock to you.
To think like a customer you need a heuristic thought process, that is you must “be your customer”. Much like how a fine artist “knows” if a painting or musical composition “works” by going with their “gut,” your employees should “know” what a customer wants. Artists develop this ability through an MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) program. Through traditional business education (MBA), however, most employees have refined their linear thought process—point A leads to point B leads to point C. But customers don’t analyze each part of your product or service; they just know if what you offer works well and if they like it. Employees who can think creatively, as if they had an MFA, can assume the mindset of your customers and market to your customers more effectively.
Such employees go with their instinct. They truly understand the customers’ wants and needs. The next time you want to know how your customers would feel about a particular product or service, adapt a non-linear (heuristic) research approach and become a part of your study base. Your focus group of one (you) will guide your initial thought process toward reaching your customers. As you instill this new MFA mindset, consider the following:
- Beware of Your Framing Bias
Think about what happens before a manager goes into a meeting. Rarely will people walk into the situation “cold.” They are briefed on who they’re going to meet and what they’re supposed to accomplish. They draw certain preconceptions, which is called a framing bias.
Framing bias is the ability to walk into a situation with a plan—a plan to make a sale, a plan to establish a relationship, etc. As long as you know what your framing bias is upfront, then you can allow the situation to develop organically. You can then take away your feelings and your impressions and use them as an analytical tool. That’s the essence of heuristics—taking your feelings and impressions and using them analytically.
Before you can fully immerse yourself in your customer’s viewpoint, you need to shed your framing bias. First, identify what your preconceptions are about your product, service, or situation. Second, once you’ve identified them, clear your mind and explore the experience for the first time. What’s your first impression? Are you reacting the way you are because of your preconceived ideas or because you are looking at the situation through fresh eyes?
- Become One With Your Customers
Become part of the story, even if you aren’t part of the product story. Generally, people like and dislike the same things. If not, you’d never have to wait in line for your favorite roller coaster at an amusement park. What do you feel? Listen to your gut—chances are your customers’ gut would tell them the same thing. You may not identify with the problem, but you’ll know what you need to do to make it feel “right.”
How can you now translate what you’ve discovered into a story for your customer? If you’re developing an ad for jogging shoes, you need to think like a runner—even if you’re not one. Why do people run? What is important to runners? How does running make people feel? After you’ve collected your personal research, you’ll be able to speak in the first person as a runner. Pretend you’re one of those successful fiction authors writing under a pseudonym. Tell your story like you live it. Now your customers will be able to personally connect with you because you’ve become one of them.
Passing the Torch
Not only do you, as a business leader, need to know how to think non-linearly, but you also have to encourage it in your employees for your company to truly succeed. Here are some ideas for encouraging creative, non-linear, MFA-style thinking in the workplace:
- Adopt an “Open Thought” Policy
The old concept of the “open door policy” needs to be revamped into an “open thought policy.” Creative thinking should be encouraged at every opportunity. Let your employees freely express their “good” ideas. Sure, you’ll need to wade through the terrible ones to get to the good ones, but it’s worth it. Your employees will feel valued and be encouraged to find new, creative ways of solving problems.
Over time, employees will learn to evaluate ideas on their own. At first, you will hear tons of ideas, only some which are worth exploring, but hang in there. It will take some time for an employee with limited knowledge of all the factors involved in running the business to be able to fully evaluate an idea of their own. As you take the role of mentor, rather than monitor, employees will become more creative and more skilled at self-editing. They’ll be able to take their ideas to the next logical conclusion and say, “You know, that idea is not going to work.” But they’ll also feel comfortable suggesting a well thought out “wild” idea to their supervisor that may turn out to be a great one.
Over time, the manager and the employee will learn how to mentor and listen more effectively, and the company may benefit from some great new ideas. An employer can’t conceive all possibilities for his or her product or services. For progress to happen, you’ll need new ideas, so encourage your employees to speak up. If one comes up with a good hook but never has the opportunity to present it, think of how many sales you could be losing.
- Bring in a Teacher
Bring in an educator for your organization that teaches and coaches creative thinking and alternate thought processes. Rather than hiring a speaker this year who gives the same old talk about ramping up sales, consider bringing in someone who teaches employees how to think creatively. See what kind of difference it makes in your sales numbers for the following year.
- Offer Tuition Reimbursement
For very large companies, consider offering tuition-reimbursement for employees to get their MFA. The object is not to get them to master painting or an instrument; it’s to teach them a non-linear thought process—a very valuable skill in today’s business world. With funding this advanced education, you will reap the rewards of your employees’ new skills, and the expense may not be as high as you’d think—you may be eligible for tuition tax credits.
If you pursue this option, be sure to set some boundaries. Require employees to maintain a certain GPA and stay with your company for a set period of time after earning their degree. You don’t want to have people earn their MFA and then get lured away by your competition!
Begin to Change Today
Creating a workplace that encourages non-linear thinking won’t happen overnight. Begin with you. Come up with a non-traditional, non-linear idea and share it with your employees, then encourage them to do the same. Encourage your employees to be aware of their framing bias and step into your clients’ shoes. Have them “become” your clients and watch how much your business grows.