While aboard a KLM flight from Los Angeles to Amsterdam, passengers were pleasantly surprised to discover that one of the attendants was none other than the airline’s CEO, Marjan Rintel. While those in the C-suites (whose desks are usually farthest from the customer) may find it easier to be given a researcher’s topline report on customer behavior, this CEO’s approach to getting a read on a company’s operations was a literal and figurative reality check. In my view, it serves as a good example of what it takes to see your brand or business as people actually experience it. In a marketplace where everything is visible, and everything is shared, it takes more than a perfunctory overview to parse the nuances of what customers are thinking and feeling, and why they act the way they do. In order to gain and keep customers, not to mention keep a competitive advantage, it takes the equivalent of getting down on the ground (or, up in the air, as it were), to observe, firsthand, what customers like about your offering and, more importantly, what they don’t like. 

When it comes to addressing customers’ concerns, immersing yourself in their experience allows you to craft more relevant solutions and, better yet, more innovative future-forward solutions. This topic was at the heart of a recent conversation I had with Chris Capossela, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Microsoft. He started out by saying how fortunate he was to be working with a company that actively fosters a culture of innovation that prompts consistent reinvention, not just in products and services, but in how everyone perceives their jobs. He went on to say that, given the accelerating pace of change and the fiercely competitive environment, the teams at Microsoft do, indeed, immerse themselves in the customer experience in order not just to understand their needs but to be ready to shift ahead of market opportunities. But rather than referring to it as “immersion,” Capossela uses the phrase “wallowing in reality.” Inelegant as it may sound, their tactics have proven highly beneficial to Microsoft and, more importantly, valuable to its customers.  

Foremost among their “wallowing” tactics is getting together every Friday as a cross-functional leadership team to take up exercises based on specific issues or concerns, including analyzing the company’s failures, weaknesses and competitive losses. “It’s about seeing the world as it really is, as opposed to how you want to see it from inside the four walls of your corporation,” Chris said. “This puts everyone in the same mental space and allows us to create meaningful discussions around where we need to go and why,” As impetus, they may bring in a customer who’d chosen a competitor’s product and engage in a conversation about how and where Microsoft fell short. Was there a problem with functionality, the sales process, the pricing, or any of the other points of customer interaction? Why did the customer choose Amazon, or Google or Zoom? “Every one of our discipline leaders at the company is pushed to innovate beyond the actual engineering,” Chris said. “As a product-based company, it can be very easy to place a larger emphasis on those teams and processes, but by doing so, other disciplines may be less inclined to innovate.” 

Flipping the equation, another tactic Microsoft employs to get real-world feedback is to focus less on the competition and more on loyal users. While, as marketers, we know it’s tempting to measure your brand based on what the other guys are doing, it’s in connecting with your fans that you find major opportunities. In fact, this is often the group that can help “co-invent” the future. As Chris put it, “Of course you want to know what prompted someone to buy a competitor’s product, but the people who can teach us the most about ourselves are those who use our products already.” By way of example, Chris talked about Microsoft Xbox gamers who, although they loved to play on a big screen, also wanted the opportunity to play on their phones or other devices. “We realized our console-centric view of the gaming world was not the way the world actually worked. We needed to have a gaming-centric view, which is how we invented Game Pass, a subscription for gamers to get access to hundreds of games across a range of devices.” It was the Xbox fans, loyal Microsoft users, who told Microsoft far more about what was important to them than the company could have learned from its competitors’ customers.

Every marketer knows that brands are both rational and emotional in nature. When someone makes a decision about a brand, they make it on both a rational and emotional level. But, as I said, when executives want customer feedback, they far too often just look at the rational side, the bullet points in a marketing report. It’s only when you actually spend time with customers, when you hear them talk, see their faces, really listen and observe them reacting to your brand, that you get a genuine read on what they think. It’s “wallowing in reality” that provides a deeper understanding of their feelings and that helps you better navigate the issues in order to identify relevant and innovative solutions. 

“Although ‘wallowing’ can be the last thing you want to do as a leader,” Chris stated, “I think it’s one of the most powerful things you can do to learn and reinvigorate your team, and your brand.”

Cover image source: lobro