The Cobbler’s Children Have New Shoes

Keith Hickerson, Papercut Interactive

By some accounts the proverbial tale about the shoemaker’s kids dates back to the mid-1500’s, and it has been told in frequent variations across several cultures. Whatever its ultimate origin, there is wisdom in the oft-quoted story about the shoemaker whose children go barefoot. All too often, those providing expertise or selling services to others are prone to neglect the same value they could provide to their own businesses.

The easy examples are marketing or public relations firms with inadequate online presences, the sign maker with poorly displayed signage outside the business, the financial adviser who doesn’t have enough insurance or the plumber with leaky pipes and a dripping faucet. The harder examples are more subtle: are we consistently as business owners able to think the way our customers do and evaluate the experience we provide through their eyes?

It’s an extension of the “customers first” mentality that is so deeply rooted in our culture. I’ve heard others describe it differently: too often business owners spend all of their time working “in” the business instead of “on” the business. While it’s always important to satisfy customers in the moment, it is equally or more important to be able to satisfy them over the longer term, too, by building stronger product offerings, providing better services and streamlining every customer interaction.

One of the greatest business thinkers around today is Charlie Munger, 96-year-old vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. Credited for helping Warren Buffett invest in higher quality businesses over time, Munger is fascinated by the ways various mental models and human cognition work, especially when it comes to avoiding the really stupid mistakes all of us can sometimes make (rather than by trying to be exceptionally brilliant, which is much harder to do). Early in his career, he also understood the importance of the cobbler’s shoes. He was an attorney in private practice and decided he was his own most important client. As a result, he made it a practice to “sell” himself an hour of his own time every morning to work on his various real estate deals and outside projects. He became his own most important client, as we all arguably should be.

Here’s a key struggle every business owner faces: how do we really get into the minds of our customers to better understand their needs and their reactions to everything from pricing and service offerings to our online presence? How does the cobbler effectively walk a mile in her customer’s shoes, and is she willing to take the time required to do it?

Here’s a path forward that might prove helpful, and it involves three levels of insight: (1) Ask customers the right questions; (2) Intuit as a customer and (3) Better engage employees.

Ask the Right Questions

Thomas J. Watson, long-time CEO and the original builder of IBM, once said that “The ability to ask the right question is more than half the battle of finding the answer.” But when it comes to asking questions of customers, we often default to quick surveys that may not uncover anything particularly new.

In constructing your next survey, think about how actionable various answers might be: what types of questions and responses would give you enough detail to make meaningful decisions to improve a particular aspect of your products or services? Are the questions too general? Is there a particular problem area you are working to address and about which you need to gain a clear insight? Be sure to provide a clear pathway to specific responses that you can actually use to make business decisions.

It may be that focus groups are becoming a lost art, based on our limited time and our “on the fly, on the phone” culture. For a smaller to mid-size business, though, focused in-person conversations with either existing customers or with potential customers can create a lot of value and are not prohibitively difficult to arrange. There is nothing like being able to ask those all-important follow-up questions on the spot when conversations with a small group of customers are moving into productive areas.

Whether your next survey interactions are online, in-person or both, a good way to think about the content is to imagine you are talking to a customer or prospect as you might chat with a friend: be sure to ask the questions for which you really need the answers.  

Intuit as a Customer

There is an inherent flaw, however, in asking customers what they think. Customers will always begin from the baseline of their current experience with your firm. They will start with what they know, and suggest incremental improvements from there. It is rare to gain a “leap insight” from existing customers – ideas that will take your business to an entirely new level.

Apple’s legendary Steve Jobs probably expressed this idea best:

“Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, “A faster horse!”’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”

How do you as a business owner really think like your customers will think over time? How do you see what they have not yet seen?

You can “intuit as a customer,” as Steve Jobs did, putting yourself in your customer’s place. Experience your business as a brand new customer would, looking at your website for the first time, doing searches on Google, exploring your own social media, checking the way the phone is answered, discovering how individuals are greeted at the door when everyone is busy. You can compare prices and products, call competitors and shop as you would if you were a typical customer.

The challenge is to really wear the hat of the customer. You may be too close to your business to do it well initially, but with time, you can train yourself to find that all-important customer perspective. Use all of your imagination: what would transform their interactions with your business?

Engage Employees

Here’s a challenge: which are more important, your customers or your employees? In many ways, it’s a trick question, of course: without either, you would have no business. There is a cyclical, interrelated aspect to customers and employees that precludes a clear choice, yet many come down on the side of employees. Without an exceptional team in place, you’ll be hard pressed to attract and retain customers over the long term.

In our quest to make sure the cobbler’s children have shoes of their own, are we neglecting wisdom from those who might inform us best? Can employees, in other words, be the ultimate source of ideas and innovations for your business?

Far beyond the casual word in the hall or the suggestion boxes and performance review discussions of yesteryear, are there ways to more intentionally engage employees in taking your business to the next level?  As Charlie Munger once sold himself an hour of his time every day to better achieve his goals, are there ways to buy the time of your most valued employees to help you rethink your business? The key will be to keep it up: the initial attempt will probably yield little of deep value, as employees will first test the waters within a new dynamic of thinking deeply about your business. Stay the course: over the long term, the freedom to contribute ideas and the consistent appreciation for those contributions will pay large dividends.

Here’s to “new shoes” for your business, your customers and your employees as we all emerge from an exceedingly challenging period. There has never been a better time to reimagine all your business can be!

If you’d like to chat with the Papercut Interactive team to gain new perspectives on what your customers are looking for, please give us a call. Together, we can discover those “new shoes.”

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