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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

To understand the client, walk a mile in their shoes

An ability to stand in the shoes of the client who will actually be using the product or service is critical. 

To understand the client, walk a mile in their shoes
[image source: fizkes / Adobe Stock]

To this day when I think back on it, I am floored: When Apple released the first iPhone 14 years ago, there was no manual in the box. Today, we don’t think twice about unboxing any smartphone and pushing buttons until it turns on and starts setting itself up.

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Back in 2007, selling consumer electronics without a manual was unheard of, especially one as innovative, complex, and completely unfamiliar to users as the iPhone. Most of the news stories I read about the device mentioned the lack of an instruction booklet. In fact, former New York Times tech columnist David Pogue launched a series of books on the subject: iPhone: The Missing Manual.

Apple, we now know, was demonstrating a remarkably good example of intuitive design—a result of relentless focus on the end user’s experience.

But this lesson applies more broadly. And it boils down to a pretty easy maxim: It’s all about knowing your client. This is true across nearly every function in a business. It’s true in sales, it’s true in marketing, and it’s true among software engineers. The ability to stand in the shoes of the client who will actually be using the product or service is critical.

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A FAILURE TO CONNECT

Seeing from the client’s point of view isn’t always innate and can be hard to do. Too often, the opposite skill is prevalent. It’s not that we ignore client needs altogether. But in meeting or prioritizing expectations like productivity, internal politics, or fitting in with company culture, client needs can go by the wayside.

We might see this in software development, when developers and designers aren’t entirely familiar with the industry their product serves. In marketing and communications, a poor understanding of the client can manifest as an overreliance on jargon. Within a company, jargon has meaning—it conveys a set of concepts that are understood by other members of the group. But when that jargon is taken out of the organization and put in marketing materials, it can lose meaning, or result in dense, incomprehensible communications. But here’s the catch: People don’t often realize that their message doesn’t connect. They can’t step outside of themselves or their organizational perspective to know their clients. But that doesn’t mean they can’t learn how.

BUILDING EMPATHY

There are many things executives can do to help their employees align their work with client needs. A lot of it has to do with empathy.

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• First, we all need to listen more. Engage clients in the field and ask them about their jobs and their roles. Listen to the words they choose to use. Are they using the same jargon as you? If not, do they understand what you’re conveying?

• To build strong relationships with clients, ask them to walk you through their day. This can be especially valuable for software developers writing applications in industries they don’t have firsthand experience in. Envision how your product or service fits into their lives, and know what’s distracting them. I often think of what it took to understand the client experience for the iPhone. In the words of one former Apple designer: “Everybody there is thinking about UX and design, not just the designers.”

• Don’t assume you know everything. Too often, people are afraid to ask questions because they don’t want to seem like they lack expertise. But questions lead to dialogue, and that leads to more understanding. When in doubt, err on the side of asking more questions. One caveat: Your questions don’t need to be challenging. Being transparent, direct, and focused on helping the client can go a long way.

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• Look closely within your organization. Are there personalities or performance metrics that get in the way of delivering? This might be hard advice for some executives, but we see it all the time: Employees will respond to incentives and to the environment around them. Sometimes, they know what the client wants and needs, maybe even better than you do. But they deliver a product to your expectations because they also want your approval.

Everything we build and everything we sell has a user. Every piece of content written has a reader. It is these people who are our clients.

The real test of whether we’re doing a good job isn’t whether we win the game of internal politics or check an item off our to-do list in the name of productivity. Ultimately, what matters is whether what we’re creating connects and resonates with our clients.

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Lukas Quanstrom is the CEO and Co-Founder of Ontic Technologies, the first protective intelligence software company.

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