How well connected are we with the real world?

When I listen to the great and good in the news, there does seem to be mounting evidence of a surreal detachment from the real world. We are facing a harsh reality that the nation and businesses have some big debts to pay back. However, people who cannot pay it back, might want to check out the write off bounce back loans
Royalty:  Prince Andrew hiring private planes at tax payers expense to go to Davos to the world economic forum  .

Civil servants:  Mark Thompson’s private flights courtesy of the Licence payer, because it was terribly important he dashed home from his holiday to sort out a staff problem.

Stephen Hester’s  £9.6m package for managing a business wholly underwritten by the tax payer and is guaranteed it cannot fail.

Politicians:  Duck houses moat cleaning, phantom mortgages etc. But now I have heard MP’s arguing that their bullet proof pensions are perfectly reasonable and the problem is not that their pensions are too generous but that the private sector is at fault and is too mean for withdrawing final salary pensions.

Ministers and opposition politicians talking as if they can continue to spend money and not realising that the electorate knows an adjustment is needed.  Gordon Brown’s slip up that we face zero percent growth in spending is an illustration of the psychological dilemma.
Business Leaders:  I heard three eminent business leaders on Evan Davis Radio 4 slot profess, without blinking or stuttering, that when they meet staff (sorry colleagues!) they have perfectly normal discussion with them. They argued that they always find out exactly what the staff thinks because staff (sorry colleagues) do not tailor the response to impress the boss. (You would never think of doing such a thing!)
How can we stay in touch with reality? .
You know this is important for you to make the right decisions for your business. If you do not, you will lose touch with customers and they will drift away and the business will flounder. This is about more than being customer driven, it is about being realistic regarding what you try to accomplish and about the kind of role and relationship you have with your customers.

The most successful leaders manage to keep in touch with this, they do it through good instincts (Margaret Thatcher), good research (Tony Blair), talking with people (David Cameron).

Less successful leaders miss the beat, (Gordon Brown) start paying too much attention to what their immediate direct reports are telling them (Neil Kinnock, John Major, Ian Duncan Smith) and do not reach out to the wider market or audience.

This is not just about market research and talking to customers it is about having wider antennae by using multiple sources.

We need to find the same thing for our businesses and to understand customers. What is available to us to ensure we stay realistic? Here are 3 thoughts to get started.

1. Seek to understand what customers have done and why Do not take too much notice of they say they will do. Future behaviour is hard to predict. Funnily enough customers cannot predict their own behaviour. But it is possible to ask them and understand their current needs and frustrations.

2. Find ways to track what people are saying about your business. Get away from the bubble in your head office. Find out what they say behind your back (being British we are too polite to tell you to your face). If you are high profile enough then social media networks provide feedback on this. It is time consuming and expensive to track but it is real and â€oewith the beat”. This seems a more practical use of social media than trying to insert ads into conversations between friends.

A good example of how customers do not want to say things to your face comes to me from conversations with John Yates Smith a Val d’Isere chalet operator (YSE). He is amazed at how often when something goes wrong in the chalet (lights, fridge hot water etc), that customers keep quiet about it all week, then go home, moan to their friends, then even write a letter of complaint. But they do not tell him whilst they are there when he could fix it.

Any more thoughts on how to stay in touch with customers and keep our antennae switched on would be very welcome.  Please post comments on this blog.