One of the nice things about being a very senior executive with a multinational company is that the job comes with perks. Sometimes, however, these perks can have the unintended effect of isolating key decision-makers from the very information they need most.
Example: For decades, the top executives at America’s leading automobile manufacturers always drove the latest models—washed, maintained, and looked after by in-company employees. How on earth could they possibly know about quality, maintenance, service or other issues faced by ordinary customers when they never encounter them?
Example: One of our telecommunications manufacturing clients used to routinely give the latest handsets and toys to its key executives. As a result, these folks never had to go into a phone store, never had to deal with inefficient or even hostile distributors, and never had to compare their offerings with competing products. It was only when the company radically changed this policy and forced its folks to go directly through the same channels customers had to use that they realized that their once-unassailable advantages with customers were starting to erode.
Example: A mobile telecommunications operator routinely had its operations staff make sure that the cellular signals in the headquarters office and even key residential areas inhabited by senior executives were strong, reliable and consistent. Imagine the surprise these executives felt when friends and relations expressed their infuriation with spotty coverage, dropped calls or weak signals—after all, this never happened to them!
The message? Sometimes, buffering senior people from exposure to ordinary experiences unintentionally gives them a false sense of security with respect to the quality, reliability or convenience of your offerings. This in turn can breed dangerous complacency and a lack of urgency with respect to underlying problems. In best-practice companies, in contrast, there are mechanisms to make sure that direct contact with customers is a part of every executives’ normal job. At Amazon.com, for instance, executives routinely spend time on the phones with customers. At Ikea, a few times a year executives and line-level staff work together. At Continental and Southwest airlines, it would not be unusual for executives to spend time at the ticket counter or handling baggage. We’ve found that there is no substitute for first-hand experience when it comes to creating the impetus for improvement.