What Barack Obama can teach us about customer engagement

The former president took time out to listen to people individually. That's as applicable in business as in politics, says customer experience expert Steven Van Belleghem.

by Steven Van Bellegham
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2018

I recently had the honour of speaking at the Forward Thinking Leadership conference in Amsterdam, shortly before Barack Obama took the stage.

The former US president talked at length about his own views on leadership and how he worked to create a movement of hope and change. What I found particularly interesting, however, were the parallels he drew between customer engagement principles and his daily routine in the White House.

Escaping the bubble

Every day that President Obama was in office, he made a point to put some time aside to end his day by reading ten letters that members of the public had sent to him. Of course, he probably received hundreds or even thousands of letters on a daily basis, but he asked his team to pick out a representative sample for him to read personally.

Some of these letters were very easy to understand, as people laid out the challenges they faced making their income match up to their living costs, whereas others dealt with more complex social issues as citizens reached out to the president to talk about their changing views on topics like gay marriage, for example.

But what this meant is that once President Obama had finished what he called his ‘homework’, looking at the situation in Afghanistan or the latest economic crisis in preparation for the next day’s meetings, he could use the letters as a way to ‘escape the White House bubble’.

The reality is that while not many of us will experience the pressure of leading a country, the idea of a ‘bubble’ is something most of can identify with in our own lives. In fact, the higher we progress up an organisation, the more of a bubble we develop, leaving directors and managers further removed from the people that really matter, the individual customers.

Bringing focus back to the customer

As business managers and leaders, we spend our lives looking at spreadsheets, charts and trends. Our businesses are increasingly data-driven, but it is easy to lose sight of the fact that what lies behind these aggregated numbers is usually individual customers. Each customer is absolutely unique, the ideal market segment size today is just one person, and actually we should be using data to personalise the service we give them.

To apply these ideas to your own organisation, I would urge every business leader to take some time out to listen to their customers. Read complaint emails, listen in to customer service calls and don’t be afraid to ask customers what they really think.

Getting outside of your management bubble in this way forces you to look at the real problems of real customers, understand the real challenges your teams face, and then you can work together to find ways to solve them.

Another of the other things President Obama did to remind him to keep the views of people outside his bubble in mind was to invite his Mother-in-Law to live with him in the White House – but then, I’m not sure how many readers would be keen on giving that idea a try!

Professor Steven Van Belleghem is an expert in customer focus in the digital world and the author of Customers The Day After Tomorrow

Image credit: Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons


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