Barbara Bund

Business people face increasing pressure from local and global competitors. They face customers who have more and more information about alternatives and more and more access to suppliers from all over the world. Given these pressures, business people are looking for approaches that make sense and will continue to make sense. I think many are fed up with management fads that may or may not provide any benefit and don’t continue to work over time.

Often people say they can’t base their strategies on customers because customers make unreasonable requests and because customers vary too much. Such opinions reveal serious misconceptions. The truly outside-in company definitely does not try to serve all the needs of its customers. Instead, its managers are clear about what their organization can and should do for customers, and whatever they do they do well. They focus.

The outside-in discipline requires that you have an explicit customer-based reason for everything you do in the marketplace. Managers need to create what I call “customer pictures,” verbal descriptions of customers that highlight the key customer characteristics and make those customers come alive. Although managers never know as much about customers as they want and need to know, the outside-in discipline requires that they construct customer pictures anyway, basing the pictures on whatever hard data they have plus hypotheses and intuition.

The decision-makers should communicate the customer pictures and the logic of the strategies and actions. That communication allows employees throughout the organization to implement the strategies and actions, tweaking them appropriately in response to variations in the marketplace. It also allows employees to recognize information in the marketplace that contradicts the customer pictures, either because the pictures were not entirely correct or because customers have changed.

Often, very talented technical people find it extraordinarily difficult to take the viewpoint of customers, who are often ignorant about the technology and who may have strong and perhaps incorrect prejudices about it. The technical people may believe, deep down, that they know better what customers “should” need. Customers, of course, have a different perspective. They want products that will solve customer problems and provide other customer benefits, and will do so without undue risk or cost. Not infrequently, customers view advanced technology itself as a risk.