Time is the one resource that is always in short supply for CEOs. Between running a company, maintaining its culture and meetings meetings meetings, CEOs' time is stretched to the maximum.

With all the people they are constantly rendezvousing with and talking to, there is one group that CEOs spend far too little time with, according to a recently completed study published in the Harvard Business Review, and that is the customers their businesses serve.

In the study, first launched in 2006 and conducted by Harvard professor Michael Porter and dean of Harvard Business School Nitin Nohria, 27 CEOs each had three months of their lives -- even non-work hours -- meticulously tracked in 15-minute segments to see how the business leaders spent their time. The leaders were from global companies that had an average annual revenue of $13.1 billion.

As one would expect, the job of CEO virtually never stops, with leaders working:

  • 9.7 hours per weekday, on average.

  • 79 percent of weekend days (averaging nearly four hours)

  • 70 percent of vacation days (averaging 2.4 hours) 

Altogether, the CEOs in the study worked an average of 62.5 hours per week.

Although CEOs have to rely on delegation, the researchers found, they also must find time to spend with all the different stakeholders in the business to "provide direction, create alignment, win support, and gather the information needed to make good decisions." And most of that needs to be done on a face-to-face basis.

No time for customers

Obviously the lion's share of a CEO's time is spent dealing with internal constituents like managers and, to a much lesser degree, employees. The researchers found that, on average, the CEOs spent about 70 percent of their time with their internal counterparts and 30 percent with external constituents like service providers, the board of directors, industry groups, the media and the government.

One external group CEOs spend just a tiny portion of their time with was customers, much to the CEOs' chagrin.

"Most of our CEOs were dismayed to discover how little time they spent with their customers--just three percent, on average," the researchers said in the study.  

All of the 27 CEOs in the study felt that three percent was far too little time to be spending with customers considering that they are a key source of information about a company's progress, trends in the industry and a company's competitors.  

Making time for customers needs to be a habit for CEOs, the researchers say. Since business leaders are so agenda-driven, it's a good idea for them to actually schedule time to meet with customers.

Some suggestions they gleaned from CEOs in their study include:

  • Meet with customers as well as staff during store visits.

  • Aim to meet face-to-face with one customer per day or week.

  • Allocate one or two days per month for customer visits.

  • Build customer visits into travel itineraries.

How leaders can get to know their customers better

I agree with the researchers that business leaders must spend more time with customers because leading by example is one of the most important aspects of leadership and if they never spend time with the customers they're serving, they risk looking out of touch.

Nothing looks worse for a CEO than handing down a new customer service policy that doesn't make any sense to the frontline customer service reps and actually makes their jobs harder.    

In the early days of our business, I positioned my office near the customer service department (not difficult in our tiny first office) so that I could listen to how the representatives handled the calls and jump in on a call when I wanted to understand better what was going on. That led to some new product ideas and workflow improvements.  

Now that the business is much larger and our offices are, in turn, much larger, physically positioning myself close to customer service isn't possible anymore. That's why, instead, we implement a cross-training program where everyone from the top to the bottom of the organization shadows or actively takes calls with customer service reps for a couple of hours each month.  

Not only do I find this incredibly helpful, I've heard from other departments like marketing and operations that they benefit a lot when they actually get the hear the customers talk. It helps everyone visualize and connect with customers better. 

If you operate in a B2B environment, taking time to get on some sales calls or perform customer visits with your sales team is an eye-opening experience. Not only do customers like seeing a CEO of the company they work with, but it also enables you to get direct information from customers that isn't filtered through any member of your team.  

Obviously, business leaders have to find the time to fit this into their schedules, but making time for customers is well worth the effort.

Published on: Jul 18, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.