Look back at any of the marketing greats that have come generations before us, and you see one common theme --they all preached about the importance of "knowing thy customer." In fact, nearly all of David Ogilvy's advertising and marketing commandments hinged first on deeply understanding the customer.

Today's most beloved brands have found their way into our hearts and minds because they've figured out how to empathize with our priorities, and deliver a solution when and where we want and need it. But how do they reach that point? How do they get to really know their customers to make a permanent impact?

It involves not just walking in your customer's shoes, but actually becoming one yourself, being present in their world, and moving at their speed. To achieve this, you have to start with a strong foundation of understanding the who, when and why of your customer, and develop good listening skills.

And this is not a one-and-done process. Staying in tune with your customer has to be ongoing and iterative -- talking to customers regularly, keeping personas up to date, and continually assessing the experience you're providing.

Get personal with your personas

Developing personas is a good place to start when trying to get inside your customer's head. If you have customers, start getting conversations going with them. Don't limit this to just your most loyal customers either.

For the most accurate data, you'll want to get a good cross section of customers --the net promoter or raving fan, the power user who always provides quality, actionable feedback to the dev team, the mature, fully implemented customer who doesn't say much, but will likely never leave, and even those who, let's face it, aren't all that happy with your brand. Describe those people in as much detail as possible.

It's also important to note that the customers you either lose after a sale or during sale process can provide valuable information as well. There is a reason why they leave and/or a reason why they chose the competition over you. This insight will tell you a lot about your ideal customer profile.

Obviously, the more of this information you can gather directly from the customer, the better, but fill in as many blanks as you can. You want this persona to be as real in your mind--and your sales team's mind--as possible.

If you don't have customers as of yet, get out there and talk to as many people who are willing as possible. But more importantly, actually listen.

Develop empathy for your customers

This is not the time for assumptions--you know what happens when you assume. Make every effort to listen to your customers--and empathize with them. Rational or emotional, the buying decision often comes down to a gut feeling.

Imagine you're shopping for a new car. You've done extensive research online, carefully coming up with a short list of vehicles that fit your needs and budget. You walk on the lot to test drive the silver, mid-size sedan--but you can't take your eyes off the red sports car.

Your brain starts justifying the purchase. You don't need four doors. Most of the time, it's just you in the car anyway--and it's not like you get to buy a new car everyday...

Emotion plays a bigger part in the purchase decision than any of us wants to admit. Take time to understand why customers are considering your product, and how they feel at each point of their journey -- when they identified the need, when they started looking for solutions, as they evaluated all options, and finally, when they landed on a decision.

Several years ago, Bloomberg published a list of the Top 100 most loved companies, based on research conducted by APCO Worldwide. And, it comes as no surprise, what earned these companies 'most loved' was that they built "a strong, enduring emotional attachment with customers."

Get out from behind the data

We've become so reliant on tech and big data, which certainly has its value and its place, but don't overlook the power of one-on-ones. This is where you get that emotional element that's so lacking in data-driven insights.

In-person or even phone conversations reveal so many more subtle clues and insights that click-through-rates and site heat maps simply don't relay. Yes, data can confirm or debunk assumptions you may have had about your customers, but the good stuff comes when you listen. Furthermore, it also affords you the ability to ask natural follow-up questions, where an online survey does not.

See things from their perspective

Now it's time to see where the rubber really meets the road. Take a journey through your brand's experience. If you have a software or app, think critically about how you feel at each point.

How easy is it to find, gather important details about, download, and use? Subscribe to your own marketing emails. Do they inspire confidence?

Then go through the sales process yourself. Feel what your customers experience. If you aren't excited all the way through to the point of sale, chances are you could be needlessly losing prospects.

Go through your product. How intuitive is it? Do you find yourself wanting it to automatically do something it doesn't --what expectations are going unmet? Now go through each of these steps alongside a willing customer.

To continue to occupy that small piece of space in the minds and hearts of your customers, show them you're willing to walk a mile in their shoes. This will also keep you in tune to when they're thinking of changing those shoes.