If your company is growing, congratulations!  That’s great news.  Now, here’s the bad news: your business may be becoming less connected with your customers with every sale you make.

Here’s why and what to do about it:

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Imagine your business is a building, like those in the diagram above.  Your customers are outside, and you run the shop inside.  The more sales you make, the larger your building grows.  Makes sense, right?

But there’s a problem: as the buildings become larger, the volume of space inside the buildings grows more quickly than the outside surface area of the building.

What this means for your business is internal priorities take up an ever-larger share of company time and resources, pulling time away from customer priorities.  The bigger your business gets, the less connected with customers it becomes.  And since customers are the lifeblood of any business, this way of growing may be hard to sustain over the long-term and could even threaten the survival of your business.

This problem isn’t obvious from looking at the diagram, because each building is the exact same shape just a different size, but the math behind this is so clear and common it actually has a name.  It’s called the Square-cube law.

Now, here’s what to do about it.  The natural world is full of examples of a more sustainable way to grow.  Here are just a few:

The picture above shows a tree, a pair of lungs, and a piece of coral.  They all need contact with the outside in order to grow and survive, just as a business needs contact with customers.

Although these natural systems need different things from their surroundings, their structures are strikingly similar.  Their network of ever-smaller branches gives them proportionally more contact with the outside – allowing them to grow quicker and larger – than if they were shaped like solid blocks.

You can put this natural best practice to work in your business by building a culture, goals, and systems to maximize exposure to your customers outside.  Think of it as a way to grow your business outwards, among your customers, as opposed to growing as a larger, single block.

Consider the following actions to help you do this:

  • Be proactive. When your company is small most employees are exposed to customers, so customer needs are naturally a central theme in day-to-day company life.  But as your company grows, this won’t be the case.  Management must proactively maintain customers at the top of the company’s ever-growing list of priorities.
  • Set goals. Include non-financial customer success goals in top-level company scorecards, to reward customer facing employees for taking care of customers and, critically, to align non-customer-facing functions in that effort.
  • Get outside! From senior managers to frontline staff, employees should spend time in the field observing customers and non-customers with no sales agenda in mind.  Instead, ask: Where are our customers trying to go in their lives and businesses, and how well are we helping them get there?
  • Ask for feedback. Gather feedback from your customers.  Go beyond quantitative scores and gather verbatim, qualitative comments.  Marry this with your field observations, and send customer insights deep into your organization in easily digestible form.  It’s like adding more windows to your building: employees will be able to see your customers from their desks.
  • Take action. Respond quickly and constructively when you uncover tactical customer issues or opportunities.  When customers know you’re listening, they expect you to act.  If you do, your connections with them will be renewed and strengthened over time; if not, they’ll wither.
  • Learn and innovate. Use the data you gather from customers and non-customers to more deeply understand them and drive continuous innovation in all departments – not just new products – to better meet their needs.  This measure is perhaps the most difficult yet it’s critically important, because it sets the path for your company’s future growth.

In the short-term, there’s a good chance growing outward will feel more difficult, complex and risky than growing as a single, larger building, which for many companies is the convenient path of least resistance.  However, over the long-term growing outwards will keep you better connected with your customers, giving your business better odds to survive and thrive.

Don’t take my word for it.  Get outside your building and see how nature does it.

 

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