Do You Really Understand Your Customer?

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I had a jaw drop moment while reading an HBR blog post by Bill Taylor, Brand Is Culture, Culture Is Brand.  Although the article is about brands and organizational culture, the story he told about the way USAA employees learn to meet the needs of their customers was very compelling and I realized right away that you’d want to hear about this.

His article highlights USAA (the insurance and financial-services firm that only does business with active or retired members of the U.S. military and their families) and their intense drive to meet the needs of their customer.  They do that by building a culture that seeks to understand the life that our military and their families live.

This is where the article brought me to a jaw-drop moment.  USAA employees are known for their empathy.  They develop that empathy through a series of immersion activities.  For example, when they’re about to start training USAA team members:

  • “Get a ‘deployment letter’ like the ones real soldiers get: ‘Report to the personnel processing-facility’ tomorrow, the letter reads, and get your affairs in order beforehand.’”
  • “Eat MREs (meals ready to eat) on many occasions during their training, to get a ‘taste’ for the life of a soldier”
  • “Walk around in 65-pound backpacks.”
  • “Read actual letters from soldiers in the field to their families back home.”

All of this is part of a strategy that “USAA calls it ‘Surround Sound’ — immerse employees in the real life and emotional needs of customers.”  One consultant said, “There is nobody on this earth who understands their customer better than USAA.”

Wow!  Isn’t what we all do worth that kind of immersion?  Wouldn’t we all like to be known as the organization that understands their customers better than anyone else!

What would it have to look like for all of us to really understand our customers in this way?

What do you think?  Have a question?  Have an idea?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

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  1. Chuck Bagby on April 18, 2013 at 7:35 am


    I have experienced the empathy to which you refer since I joined USAA in 1975. Jesus also immersed the twelve in the lives of their “customers” by leading them to mix with those “sinners” the religious leaders shunned. Lord, help us apply what we have learned.

    Chuck Bagby

  2. markchowell on April 18, 2013 at 7:37 am

    Thanks for jumping in here, Chuck! Definitely agree with that prayer!