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leadership lab

This column is part of Globe Careers' new Leadership Lab series, where executives and leadership experts share their views and advice about the leadership and management issues of today. There will be a new column every weekday. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

"If you make customers unhappy in the physical world, they might each tell six friends. If you make customers unhappy on the Internet, they can each tell 6,000 friends." – Jeff Bezos,

With the prevalence of social media, you don't have to look very far to see what is on the minds of customers these days. A single tweet or blog post can go viral in a matter of minutes and for businesses this can be a blessing – or a curse. Just think what it means for a fledgling product to make Oprah Winfrey's list of favourite things, or conversely have thousands of disgruntled transit riders tweet about the latest subway delay.

It has never been more important for businesses to be customer centred, to be in tune with – or even better, anticipate – the needs of the customer before they know it themselves. This mindset should not only be the responsibility of the marketing department or the sales team but should also exist throughout the organization. After all, business decisions, whether they be tactical or strategic, ultimately have an impact on the customer.

But understanding what customers need is easier said than done. To help improve the odds for success, companies are leveraging sophisticated ways to deepen their understanding of customers: To develop a new line of products, researchers at Danish toy-building-block company Lego spent several years in families' homes watching how girls play; Zappos, an online shoe company, empowers its call-centre staff to go above and beyond the call of duty by following the Golden Rule: Treat customers as you would like to be treated yourself.

You don't always need to make huge investments to be more customer centred. Here are some simple yet powerful ways for you to put the customer first.

1. Lead by example

To create a customer-centred mindset, thinking about customers needs to be incorporated into the everyday – post pictures in meeting rooms of your customers or have customers share their experiences with the team. Do you have a great customer story that might inspire your team?

The director of procurement services at the University of Toronto starts every weekly meeting by sharing a real customer story. Talking about the customer is now so engrained into the department that every new project has team members asking "How does this affect the customer?" And that helps the team focus on what matters.

2. Embrace customer feedback

Even behind the most negative review is a genuine desire on the part of the customer to want things to be better and an opportunity for your business to step up. As David Kelley, the founder of IDEO, a global design and innovation firm, liked to say: "Feedback is a gift." Take time to listen to what customers are saying, read the customer comments or note what problems come up frequently.

Employees at Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts meet every morning to go over customer issues from the previous day and review how they resolved them. These "glitch" reports are shared globally so as to help other locations learn from their experiences and improve.

3. Don't take things at face value

In senior roles, we can sometimes get caught up in the day-to-day and can lose sight of who the business is there to serve. Take 20 minutes to talk to or watch your customers in an everyday setting (such as shopping, working or socializing). This can provide a different perspective of what drives customer thinking and actions. Notice: Where do they struggle? Ask: What are they thinking and feeling?

A.G. Lafley, Procter & Gamble's chief executive officer, makes a point of doing in-home customer visits each time he travels to a new location. Interacting with customers outside the store gives him a richer understanding of the people he serves and sparks new insights about what they might need.

4. Work the front lines

Experiencing customer-facing roles provides a level of understanding that can't always be conveyed in a business meeting or through a memo. Spend an afternoon working the sales counter or taking customer calls. Ask yourself: How is what I'm doing having an impact on the customer? Bonus points: Pretend you are a customer of your own business and experience it for yourself.

Online retailer requires their managers and executives to spend several days training and working in their call centres. This experience allows them to make subsequent business decisions with the customer in mind.

From our experiences in the classroom and in industry, we've seen how simply taking a customer's perspective can change a leader's view of their business and open up new opportunities to innovate.

Mark Leung (@m8leung) is the Director of Rotman DesignWorks (@RotmanDsgnWrks) at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management (@rotmanschool).