The Answer is ALWAYS Outside the Building

“My opinion is informed.”

“I’ve ‘been there, done that’.”

“I know exactly what the market needs.” 

“Just listen to me – this will work. Our customers WILL buy this.”

If you’ve been around the business world awhile, you’ve heard these phrases uttered by founders of start-ups and leaders of business units at larger firms. If these beliefs and sentiments are deep rooted and non negotiable, your company’s fate may be doomed. 

The reality, however, is this:
Experience is great, but markets change rapidly. If you infrequently interact with your customers, you’ll miss out on solving needs which could make or break your organization.  

The days, quarters and years of your customers’ past are helpful, yet you must stay vigilant with how and what your customers’ worlds will look like tomorrow. Let’s cut to the chase:  your storied experience is impressive, but it is dated. If you don’t engage (early, often and always) with your customers, you won’t know how and why their world is changing. And if you don’t know and understand how their world is changing – your products and services will become irrelevant. Your portfolio of ‘can’t miss’ products and services will be attempting to solve problems which are no longer critical to the markets you serve. 

Over my career, I’ve been front and center watching teams and organizations become ensnared in this predictable trap. The busyness of doing becomes more important than clarifying the what we are doing’ and why that is the best path forward for the market we serve. Keep reading to learn from these missteps and how I quickly responded and listened to the market, giving them just what they need to solve pressing problems.

It’s the Webcam, Dan. It’s the Webcam

Straight out of graduate school and in the epicenter of the Internet boom years, I joined an early-stage startup with one singular goal: educate and inspire TV broadcasters to get online and figure out a path to profitability. We were pitching television stations on the concept of building a virtual community, a digital home where viewers could talk politics, discuss local news, and explore local businesses. 

My friends and business co-founders and I had developed an amazing toolset capable of transforming a television station on-air product into Web-ready news, weather and sports content. Our team coded into the night to make sure our first TV client, WCPO-TV (in beautiful and woefully underrated Cincinnati, Ohio) was ready to go from a static Web presence to an organic, ever-changing and a prized destination on Day One. 

Being a young and eager team, we knew we had much to learn so we got out of the building frequently (it was a short drive from our HQ to WCPO-TV), communicating with the key stakeholders at the station: the news director, programming director, sports director and lead meteorologist. Fortunately, we didn’t equate our broadcasting classroom education (bachelor’s and master’s degrees) as a proxy for knowing the market. You can read about the broadcast industry, but you don’t really know the industry until you feel the pressure of sweeps week, sense the anxiety to prep content for the upcoming newscast, or grind through a meeting with a news director who is frustrated by the lack of fresh, new ideas from the team. 

After visiting with countless stakeholders, we were told by numerous ‘insiders’ at the station to meet with the Director of Special Projects, Hasker Nelson. “Hasker is our Web guy,” we were told. 

Hasker didn’t fit the mold of a ‘web guy’. With prolific grey hair and a stern demeanor, Hasker was a man who demanded results for all the projects he participated in – and the web site was no different. He had a plan and he wanted to execute on that plan. Hasker didn’t like fancy and flashy – he craved efficiency and effectiveness.

My first meeting with Hasker went like this: 

“Hasker, let me show you all the cool functionality you can add to your Web site in just a few minutes. It is super easy to update,” I said, racing so fast I am surprised I had time to breathe. 

Hasker looked at me with calm eyes and a furrowed brow and said nothing. 

Mistakenly, instead of asking him about his experience with the web site and the site’s visitors, I kept talking, rattling on about incredible functionality and amazing, can’t live without features. 

Hasker looked at me, paused, waited another five seconds and said: “Can I share what I’ve heard from our Web visitors? You know I’ve been running our site for a few years now.”

I nodded while instantly regretting putting my needs before the needs of the customer. 

“We have a number of cameras positioned on buildings across the city. Our viewers have told us they’d like to see these cameras on the Website. All that other stuff you mentioned for our site sounds great, but we need to listen to our customers. And our customers want Webcams.”

I resisted the urge to politic for our newest, latest and greatest functionality – streaming content, interactive polling, quizzes. Reluctantly, I bit my tongue and did the best thing I could do under the circumstances – listen to the customers and the wise, philosophical, and dogmatic Mr. Nelson. 

Over the course of the next few days, we coded and built the UI to give the Webcams a prominent place on the television station’s Website. Within hours after launch, the Webcams surged to the top of the station’s web statistics. The sales team sold sponsorships for the pages and the on-air talent gleefullly promoted the web site during their nightly newscast – something we could never get them to do before. 

Thank you Hasker Nelson for teaching our team the valuable lesson of putting customers first. If we would have naively stayed in our home office, not giving WCPO staff the platform to share and partner in their new web journey, we would have missed out an ‘under the radar’ feature that got the web site moving ‘up and to the right’. 

Getting out of the building pays – big time.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of The Answer is ALWAYS Outside the Building

Until next time,

Dan Naden

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