Legend has it that a past-CEO of a major Australian airline would, when flying, sit in seat 1A with his back angled to the person in the seat beside him, with a newspaper up around his face. He would take no food or drink. He’d just sit and read the paper and talk to no-one. The cabin crew reportedly considered his behaviour distant, cold and remote. What a waste of a golden opportunity to bond, connect with and learn from your front line staff and customers. Is reading the paper more important than building company morale and creating memorable customer experiences?

Richard Branson, on the other hand, could never be accused of this. Instead he would carry a notebook with him at all times, jotting down random thoughts and ideas and constantly connecting with people all around him. He has built an incredible career out of moving into industries where the competition was complacent and where the customers were getting a poor deal. These included music, radio, mobile phones and not surprisingly the airline industry.

Branson has never sought to create brand new products but rather to push the envelope by delivering old products in new ways. Central to this approach has been a willingness to “walk in the customer’s shoes” to see what could make their experiences better, more entertaining and most importantly, memorable.

A friend of mine who was based in London told me that several years ago he saw Richard Branson having dinner with a small group at the rear of a London restaurant. At one point my friend noticed that the maitre d’ had a quick chat with Branson who then strode to the front of the restaurant to join in the refrain of happy birthday to, as was discovered later, a Virgin frequent flyer. Apparently, the whole restaurant joined in heartily and Branson left quite an impression despite the entire incident lasting for less than a minute.

You can never know enough about your customers or your market-place. Every time you get a chance to connect with them (or with your front-line staff) take it up – it is a golden opportunity not to be wasted. Ask them what you are doing well (and badly) and what you can do better. Find out what would influence them to buy more from you. The best decisions are made when you seek outside perspectives, collect internal insights and then use these to make predictions (and better decisions) about the future.

The primary purpose of business is not to satisfy stock market analysts but to solve customer problems and satisfy their needs better than anyone else in your sector. The customer is the boss and they can fire you at any time merely by choosing to buy elsewhere. The more you understand about them the less likely that this will happen.

Richard Branson built a £2bn personal fortune by understanding this more deeply than his competitors and then delivering his customer promise relentlessly. Despite his airline interests, it’s unlikely he spent much time in seat 1A reading the paper…

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