When you understand a customer, their business and their challenges on a deep level, you are able to identify emerging opportunities and risks and how you can respond to them before the customer may even be aware of them.
The idea of customer intimacy is a well understood marketing idea that dates back a couple of decades. It represents the idea that you cannot expect the customer to tell you what they want or what they need. In many cases, the customer genuinely does not know. Instead, you must create an intimate relationship with them whereby you understand their wants and needs intrinsically so that you can meet them, whether they can articulate them or not. It also means that because you understand the customer, their business and their challenges on a deep level, you are able to identify emerging opportunities and risks and how you can help respond to them before they may even see them themselves.
When you get this right, it can be a game changer.
Many people do not remember this, but when the iPad was first announced, it was widely dismissed by the pundits. Industry watchers declared there was no significant market for tablets, that tablets had been tried numerous times and had failed on each occasion. The iPad was offered up as proof of Steve Jobs' hubris. Of course, the pundits were wrong. After this fact became clear, a reporter interviewed Jobs and asked what market research he had done that told him that the iPad would be successful. Famously, Jobs replied, "None. It’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want."
Steve Jobs and the culture of Apple had developed an intrinsic understanding of their customer's wants and needs. They had developed a deep level of intimacy that allowed them to understand there was a desire for the right kind of tablet that no focus group or customer survey could uncover. It was only through this deep, close relationship that it could be understood. That's the power of intimacy.
Becoming an Intimate Leader
The problem with intimacy is that it requires mutual vulnerability. Just as in an intimate personal relationship, you must be willing to put yourself at risk in order for the relationship to exist. Intimacy cannot exist without trust and transparency, which is why the preceding organizational traits are so important. (Read my previous articles on trust and transparency here and here, respectively). But even with the trust and transparency, intimacy requires that you take it further. You must be willing to allow yourself to be vulnerable to establish the depth of the relationship that is required.
So what does it mean to become an "intimate leader"? I believe that if you are to develop the type of intimate relationships that will be demanded as we enter this new era for IT, you will be required to do three things:
Tear down the wall with humility
The first step is to approach your customers with a sense of humility. I write extensively about the need for humility and a servant’s attitude because it is so central to building the kind of relationship that is required as the world of IT shifts. I learned the power of this approach during a recent trip to Kenya as part of my church's global outreach program. But instead of being the rich, smart Americans who come to Kenya to "help" and "show them how to do things like us," we went in with an attitude that our first goal was to listen and learn. We spent time with a number of local Kenyan non-profit organizations and sought to understand the challenges that they were attempting to address, their approaches, where they were finding success and where they were struggling. It was only after we genuinely listened and learned that we offered ways that we thought we might be able to help. Inevitably, we learned as much from the Kenyans as they did from us. And we brought many of these lessons back with us and applied them in the U.S. This posture of humility enabled us to tear down the walls that often exist in these kinds of situations and build a meaningful and mutually beneficial relationship. It is no different when you are working with your customers. If you begin with a posture of humility, seeking to listen and learn, you will reset the foundation of your relationship with them.