With so much emphasis being placed on new technology, it’s easy to forget about the one thing that got you where you are today – and I’m not talking about your innovation, willpower, or proven track record. I’m talking about your brain.
Your ability to think on your feet and make informed decisions has helped you become a true expert in your field. But as you move up the corporate ladder, you can become further and further removed from the heart of your business – so much so that it can affect the way you think about it.
In my industry, for example, conventional wisdom told us that people wanted to see a storage unit before renting it. It wasn’t until potential customers started asking for additional ways to lease with us that we seriously considered other options.
But we didn’t just throw something together to fulfill this need. We thought critically about the options to ensure that we were providing the most convenient methods to rent storage space. Now, 45 percent of all our rental transactions come through the phone or Internet – sight unseen.
In my experience, there are seven strategies leaders can use to tap into their critical thinking powers to make better-informed decisions:
1. Stand at the point of sale
Sometimes, observing the interactions between customers and sales associates can provide valuable insights into your business. On a single visit, you not only get a flavor for a customer’s experience, but you also hear the questions customers ask your employees. This can spark new ideas to improve your sales process and better meet your customers’ needs.
2. Buy competitors’ products or services
Much like experiencing what it’s like to do business with your own company, you can learn a lot about what to do – or not do – by purchasing something from your competition. But don’t just pay attention to the transaction itself. Observe the follow-up process, and compare it to your own. Is your competition really winning at a certain aspect, and can you leverage it to improve your own?
3. Keep an open-door policy
Jack Dorsey is a fan of an open floor plan to make himself more accessible, and you should make yourself available, too.
Offer opportunities for employees to communicate with you on ways to improve your business, regardless of their position. Maybe a process isn’t working as well as it could be, creating a bottleneck within the company. By establishing an environment where it’s acceptable to voice concerns, people are more apt to tell you what’s not working, and you can empower them to fix it.
4. Look outside your industry
Become a more discriminating consumer in your day-to-day life, and take note of services or features businesses provide in other industries. You might stumble upon a clever website function or an ingenious service that can improve your customers’ experience. Think critically about how you can apply best practices to your business and your company culture.
5. Talk to competitors and peers
Not everyone is tight-lipped about what’s led to his or her success. Think about it: Most of us want to be thought leaders in our industries, and sharing our insights is one of the most effective ways to achieve this standing. So encourage your competitors and industry peers to brag about what’s been working really well for their businesses.
6. Read customer reviews
Even bad reviews can do a lot for your business. Make a habit of reading what others are saying about your products or services. You’ll get a feel for current trends, and you may find a few ways to improve.
Mickey Drexler, CEO of J.Crew, is famous for responding personally to customer complaints. He even got on the phone with one disappointed customer to discuss the fashion retailer straying “too far from the classics.”
7. Don’t get too attached to the way you do things
Entrepreneurs tend to be risk takers by nature, but as businesses grow and thrive, leaders can lose a little of that entrepreneurial spirit.
Be flexible and unafraid to take risks in your company. Amazon embodies data-driven risk taking in its quest to constantly improve the customer experience. Small changes here and there can do wonders for a business.
By staying connected to the heart of your business, you avoid losing touch with what’s actually driving sales and profit. You just need to unplug from your daily routine, come down from the ivory tower, and start interacting with your customers, employees, and even your competitors. These discussions will unleash powerful new ideas and help you make more informed decisions as a leader.
Photo credit: Khalid Albaih / Flickr