The Soft Stuff

Tom Peters

Winners focus obsessively on their customers. Losers don’t. Truly customer-obsessed companies have learned three subtle secrets that help them better serve their customers.

The first secret is correctly defining your product. Do pounds of thrust accurately capture the essence of a rocket engine? Does percentage of beef describe a McDonald’s hamburger? Does interest rate describe a loan? Most businesspeople would have us believe so. They denigrate any trait that is not “hard.”

But that’s utter nonsense. If “soft” traits didn’t count, we would all wear drab Mao Zedong jackets, put a bowl over our head and use pruning shears when it came time for a haircut, live in Quonset huts and eat light-weight, dehydrated packages of food. That is, we would peel life back to its bare and least expensive essentials.

The computer, helicopter, banking transaction, or personal cosmetic is ten percent “hard” and 90 percent “soft.” Emotion, distorted memories of distant bad or good experiences, recommendations of friends, and a thousand similar factors explain more about a lost or a gained sale than do technical specifications.

Yet most companies have not figured this out. They continue to overemphasize the “hard” traits (specifications or price) and all but ignore all other attributes. Customer-obsessed companies are more sensitive to the “soft” stuff than the “hard” stuff. They ceaselessly worry about service, reliability, packaging, delivery and the smallest of blemishes in transactions with customers, which carry so much weight. Their entire resource-allocation process—from initial design through the manning of 800 toll-free numbers—features concerns that go under-attended in the less attentive companies.

The second secret of customer-obsessed companies is listening naively. A marketing executive in a pet food company admits that he is fortunate because he has no illusions that he understands his customers’ (dogs and cats) views.

In fact, we would be much better off if we could pretend that our customers were foreigners, who do not speak our language. They don’t. Take a person who comes from the world of commercial banker. One customer might come from the world of contractor; the next from the world of a woman’s-wear boutique. The language and customs are dramatically different for each. Few of the banker’s customers will speak “Banker.”

Sadly, most of us don’t listen to our “foreigners” naively. But worse, we act as we usually do when we’re around a foreign person who doesn’t speak our language and tries to ask us directions. As soon as it becomes clear to us that we aren’t getting through, we shout ever louder in our own language. He or she speaks just enough of our language (for example, the customer knows where the accelerator pedal is on the car) to convince us that if only we would yell a little louder, the advantages of the new overhead cam design would get through his or her thick skull.

Each of us carries around a crippling disadvantage—we know and probably cherish our product. After all, we live with it day in and day out. But that blinds us to why the customer may love it—or hate it. Most of our customers’ reasons would never occur to us because they see the product through an entirely different set of lenses.

For starters, a customer-obsessed company tries to learn the other person’s language. Patience, empathy, and good translators are required.

The third trait of customer-obsessed companies is even more obvious—they talk about customers. That’s hardly a breakthrough idea, but wait a moment before you dismiss it. Take a look at your in-basket right now. Go through the items one at a time and classify them as externally oriented (dealing explicitly with customers or competitors) or internally oriented (minutes from a committee meeting, about a computer purchase or a cost report). I’ve done this in a variety of functions (finance, personnel, manufacturing, even marketing). Rarely does less than 95 percent of the material deal with internal affairs.

We are what we eat. We are also almost exactly what we pay attention to. If you talk about customers, you’ll become customer oriented. If you fail to talk about customers, you won’t. The volume of communication is much more decisive over the long haul than the quality of the communication.

Here’s how to feed your in-basket with the daily required minimum dose of customers. Make sure customer complaint letters are sent not just to the complaint department or to a couple of people directly dealing with the specific problem, but to people throughout the company. Likewise for field reports from sales or service people. Man booths at trade shows not just with salespeople, but with design and quality-control engineers. Escorts for customers on a company visit should not just be their salesperson, but accountants or hourly workers from the distribution center. Have everybody try competitors’ products, not just the competitive intelligence unit. And on and on.

These three traits—treating “soft” product attributes as central concerns, listening naively as if the customer were a foreign guest, and getting the customer into the in-basket—are seldom the central focus of building a true customer orientation, or obsession. Yet I find that these are the decisive traits. Each lends itself to thoughtful discussion and pragmatic action.

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