Over the past 27 years, including the last 17 as a Venture Capitalist, I've worked closely with hundreds of companies and observed probably tens of thousands.
I've seen huge hits and massive flops and companies that pivoted successfully and companies that pivoted into oblivion. What I've found is this: The most important thing that a manager can do is remember that everything starts with the customer. Everything.
The other striking thing is that most companies pay lip service to this ideal yet so many fall short. This isn't because of neglect or malfeasance. Everyone knows that they need to be "customer-focused." Rather, it's a blind spot. Businesses think they're customer focused, but they're not.
Get Out There
One reason for this disconnect is that the product and marketing people are often cloistered in the office, insulated from the customers that they're supposed to be marketing to. In contrast, sales is out there touching prospects all the time and as a result have idiosyncratic knowledge of the people with whom they are interacting.
This separation shouldn't be there. For a startup, sales and marketing should be almost indistinguishable. You should be conversing with hardcore users and to potential customers. This type of conversation is integral to product development. But I find that in about 50% of cases, marketing isn't interacting with customers.
This is the heart of the problem for many companies. For instance, there's no use trying to get a department-level alignment unless you start with the customer and truly understand what it is that you need to motivate them down their journey. You need to figure out what those touch points are that you're going to create and figure out who is going to create them.
What I'm saying may sound rudimentary, but the reality is I often see that marketing has zero knowledge of target customers or worse, it has false knowledge. This is an issue of focus. Instead of learning about the customer, marketing tends to be very focused on internal metrics, like how many hits the website or a given page gets. Deloitte has found that marketers are more attuned to addressing issues like organizational buy-in and breaking silos than meeting the emotional needs of customers.
This lack of focus leads businesses to cater to needs that aren't top of mind for customers. A classic example of this was several years ago when the Royal Bank of Canada began adding ATMs and online access and extended banking hours because it thought that its customers wanted more convenience. It turned out that they did, but that wasn't their top priority. What RBC's customers really wanted was a bank that cared about them and valued them as individuals.
I'm not trying to be negative. Marketing is amongst the most important groups in the company. A company won't grow unless the go-to-market people are doing a good job. Having false knowledge of the customer can be worse than having no knowledge at all because you're operating off of assumptions that give you a false baseline and that means everything marketing does will be off. The problem is that no one believes they have a false knowledge of the customer, but believe me, some of you reading this do.
A Simple Fix
This is a simple problem with a simple fix, which is to closely coordinate marketing and sales. First make sure that both marketing and sales is doing their job in getting out and talking to customers. Then ensure that marketing and sales are communicating daily about what those customers are saying. That way, the shared insights can be used for creating and iterating on coordinated experiences and an organization that's then built to create those experiences.
Shared knowledge is the basis for a continuous improvement loop that runs through the organization. If you start with the customer, you can optimize. That doesn't mean you're optimized, it means you can optimize.
It sounds easy and obvious, I know. After all, we all know that meeting consumer needs is the basis for a successful business. But I've seen businesses fail at this over and over because, let's face it, we all have blind spots. As physicist Richard Feynman once said, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you're the easiest person to fool."