Organize Around Your Customer

Teams are dealing with more demands from more stakeholders than ever before, making it hard to prioritize goals and align around a clear strategy. So before we start any client engagement, the very first question that we ask the team is also the one that raises the most consternation: “Who is your customer?”

It’s our belief (reinforced by years of practice) that no team can exist without a customer—an explicit group who consumes the output of the team and whom the team serves. This customer is often external (e.g., “people who buy our widgets”) but, for shared services teams like Finance and HR, it can also be an internal customer (e.g., “The Finance department serves the internal teams who need to make smart financial decisions”).

The more customer-focused a team is, the greater the sense of clarity and purpose each team member feels: when you know whom you’re trying to help, and what they need, it serves as a guiding principle regardless of what else is going on in the market. (It’s also especially relevant for a rapidly scaling team; being customer-led is the most effective way to knit teams together in an expanding organization.) But we’ve found that many teams never come to a consensus about who the customer is—or even if they have more than one—and what they need to deliver. If you find your team’s attention is divided, hold a brainstorm and ask:

  1. Who consumes the output of our daily work? Often, teams are quick to label their customer as an external audience, when in fact they are creating raw material that another team uses to interact with outside customers. This is especially true for companies with retail outlets or franchises; the main office rarely serves the final customer.

  2. What do they need from us most, and why? After the customer has been identified, we move on to Clayton Christensen’s Jobs to Be Done Framework: People don’t buy lawn mowers because they want a lawn mower—they buy lawn mowers because they need a well-kept yard. Don’t assume that your customers specifically need what you sell today, so focus on the outcome. For example, if you are a data science team within a company, don’t assume other teams want more data—they just want to make better, faster decisions. That insight might change everything you do.

Once you’ve identified your customer, we recommend reviewing their needs on a regular basis:

  • At every Project Kickoff, when you should define a desired customer outcome.

  • During a monthly Sensing Session, in which the team discusses changes in customer needs.

  • In every Project Retrospective, which allows the team to discuss how a project impacted the customer.

Need a way to track whether you’re improving in terms of customer focus? IDEO has a simple measure: Time Since Last Contact.


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