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4 Dangers of Isolating Yourself From Your Customers

Even seemingly little things can create a gulf between you and your customers. Now's the time to close the gap--before it's too late.

When you succeed at anything, a lot of people will be resentful, for a host of reasons. A clear example is the high-tech industry in San Francisco, where a shuttle bus controversy has become a proxy for gentrification, as the Los Angeles Times succinctly observed.

Complaints about shuttle buses for employees of Google, Facebook, and other tech companies are nothing more than the culmination of anger over how tech money has driven up rents and how technology entrepreneurs and their employees push long-time residents out of neighborhoods. This is the growing reaction to income inequality and a feeling of helplessness.

As Anil Dash puts it, those in the Bay Area high-tech crowd could take simple steps to begin reducing the resentment. Essentially, he advises them to become part of the community in which they reside.

It's an excellent point and has significant business ramifications as well. As blogger and journalist Tom Foremski puts it, "Silicon Valley companies isolate their workers" in a number of ways, whether effectively keeping them in enclaves, providing services that eliminate the need to do business with the people around them, or fostering a secretive company culture that separates them from other citizens.

Yes, there are social implications, but also business ones. Putting a wall between your employees and your customers is a dangerous step.

  • No one can tell you what your customers are like as well as the customers themselves. The more you interact with them, the better you understand their interests and needs. Then you have a chance of designing products and services they might actually use, because you're not making choices driven by the sound of a corporate echo chamber.
  • Innovation requires a collision of experiences, impressions, ideas, and observations. When employees increasingly stay within the same culture, circumstances, and mindset, it is more difficult for them to obtain the unexpected insights that can lead to the next big idea. Instead, they are stuck with incremental innovation that may be helpful but probably not market-shattering.
  • The more you keep outsiders out and insiders in, you miss opportunities to recruit fresh blood that might invigorate your organization and lead to important advances. That also leaves such people potentially available to competitors.
  • As high tech around San Francisco has begun to find, isolation can make you take actions that hurt other people without even realizing it, creating resentment instead of goodwill. You've tried to turn your back on the community, which is still a stakeholder in your affairs. You may find that when you want to get the cooperation of people in general, it is no longer available to you.

There are many ways a company can isolate itself from its customers. I've seen executives snidely dismiss and ridicule their customers--people who were ultimately responsible for the company's success. Product designers can assume they know best and that it's not worthwhile talking to customers. A company can culturally isolate itself, as high tech often does.

Whatever the form of separation, it's a danger to the health and success of the organization. Look for walls at your company and tear them down as soon as you notice them.

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IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Feb 5, 2014

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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