It seems the more market intelligence top executives possess, the less in touch they are with their target audiences. And the less in touch they are, the more likely they are to lose business, especially nowadays when loyalty is harder to find than is an ethical politician.

I’ve spoken with countless CEOs, CMOs, and other members of the C-suite in recent months who all worry about the same thing: remaining relevant to their audiences’ wants and needs. Yet many continue to be out of touch with those very same audiences and inadvertently do things that, instead, alienate or antagonize customers.

Here are five sure signs that you, or your organization, may be out of touch with the people or businesses that are buying your product or service:

1. Surprise Attack

One of the worst things that can happen is to launch the newest generation of a product or service and tout it as the next great thing, only to discover that audiences hated the original version.

This happened not too long ago to an online software company. It had created a new tool that promised to be faster and more intuitive than anything else on the market. When the company launched version 2.0, however, it found that version 1.0 was being savaged in social media and on various sites. It’s tough to launch a new and enhanced product when you weren’t aware of negative reactions to the existing one. Being more in tune with customer’s feelings about the original would have avoided this huge disconnect. It also would have pre-empted the need for an immediate crisis communications campaign to defend the first generation product, thereby making it hard to focus on successfully launching version 2.0.

2. One Degree of Separation

Is your organization siloed? If so, it’s not unique. Many companies completely separate customer service from marketing, marketing from research & development, and R&D from sales. The result is a business version of the Tower of Babel.

We once worked with a company that trumpeted its oh-so-reliable wristwatches. Sadly, though, the watch was, shall we say…time challenged? Customer complaints flooded the internet, and we ended up spending more time putting out fires than promoting the product. Amazingly, the company’s customer service teams knew all about the customer complaints long before the marketing campaign was created. But the chief marketing officer didn’t take the time to listen to her customers, much less what other people in her own company already knew. As a result, sales clerks in department stores who were supposed to sell the watches actually made fun of the advertising and PR campaign, and aggressively pushed competitors’ products instead.

3. Get out From Behind the Desk

Not too long ago, we surveyed 75 chief marketing officers of medium and large-sized organizations. We asked them a simple question: Have you ever put yourself in your customer’s shoes and experienced your brand from the outside in? A startling 75 percent had not. When we probed further, we heard things like:

  • “That’s my agency’s job.”
  • “I have more market research than I can shake a stick at.”
  • “I already know who my customer is.”
  • “I am too busy to visit a store, go on a sales call or use my web site.”

The very best executives find the time to experience their organization’s brand from the outside in. They don’t rely solely on market research or assume they already know all they need to know about their customer.

One of our erstwhile clients felt they knew their customer so well they had named him and more. Neil was 31 years of age, engaged to be married, an early adopter of technology and, truth be told, a bit of an arrogant ass. Fine. But the subsequent product launch and marketing campaign didn’t resonate with all of the other target audiences who would have considered buying this client’s product. The CMO was summarily dismissed, and the product remains an also-ran in the category.

4.It’s the policy, stupid.”

Often, the folks in sales know what product attributes sell but are told by management to push other features. Or the marketing department, painfully aware of the organization’s rapidly aging target demographic, wants to appeal to Millennials instead. Sadly, they’re ordered to just keep doing what they’ve been doing. These folks know the problem. They see it. But, they don’t have the authority to fix it. In effect, they’re told, “Sorry, that’s not your job.”

One well-known office products company wanted to re-position itself as a green solutions provider. So marketing launched a massive campaign heralding the arrival of the green office. The sales force completely ignored it. They knew their customers best. And they knew none would be interested in buying a more expensive, green solution in the midst of a weak economy. Instead, they kept on emphasizing their low cost. The result was a downsized marketing department, an abandoned campaign and millions of dollars down the drain.

5. “Tell your statistics to shut up”

A recent survey of 1,700 chief marketing officers by IBM shows the No. 1 challenge they face is managing, interpreting and using the immense amounts of data pushed their way.

In one recent case, Target actually lost control of its Einstein-like predictive data. In a highly publicized gaffe, the data triggered a computer in direct marketing to begin mailing coupons for hand lotion, diapers, and other “new mom” products to a teenage girl in high school. The mailing outraged her father who complained to the local store and alerted the media. As it turned out, the girl was, in fact, pregnant, but hadn’t told her father yet. Ouch!

Ask yourself if you and your organization are caught in one or more of these pitfalls.  If you are, it’s time to find ways to reconnect more fully with the people who buy your products and services. Redouble your efforts to find out how they feel, and what it really means to do business with your company. Then, and only then, can your whole company work together to make sure that you never lose sight of the needs and wants of the people who keep you in business, or that you never cause them to lose their minds when dealing with your company.