How to find the time to get closer to your customers? Meeting customers is a great source of insight. Too busy? You may have more time than you think (from my cmo.com column).

A recent study found that just half of employees’ work hours in large US companies are spent on clearly productive activities: primary job duties (45%) and useful meetings (9%). The other half goes to emails (14%)—some useful, some not—and interruptions and unproductive meetings (15%), as well as administration (12%). “No time to meet customers” looks like a pretty weak excuse. Time to get out of the office!

The answer lies with your customers (everybody knows this)

CEOs AG Lafley, at P&G, and Bart Becht, formerly at Reckitt Benckiser, both believe in pushing their teams to do regular consumer home visits. Some of the ideas that emerged have driven their companies’ growth for years. Great customer insights often come from simply talking and listening to customers about their relevant issues. So why do so few marketing leaders regularly meet with customers? Because, they say, they’re too busy.

No time to see customers—think twice

When I recently introduced the idea of regular customer meetings to a group of bank executives, one replied, “I’m already working more than 12 hours a day. When do you want me to do this?” For decades, that executive’s bank has relied on customer research by external experts—and lost touch with its customers.

The debate shifted when I asked these executives to each provide confidential estimates of how they spend their work hours, in five categories: 1) driving the business, 2) productive meetings, 3) unproductive meetings, 4) internal emails, and 5) other. You could hear a paper clip drop when we displayed the group results. About 60% of their time fell into the first two productive categories. The rest was spent on largely unproductive activities. The group quickly agreed that they could make time for customer meetings.

Here are some ideas to create more customer face time:

  • Apply the fifty-fifty rule Try this—get at least half your business ideas by talking to customers. How do you track of this? Keep a plain notebook of ideas. Take a double page and use it like a balance sheet: ideas directly from customers on the right, ideas from other sources on the left. It’s pretty simple—and effective.
  • Get out In business-to-business markets, ask customers directly about their experiences with your products or services. Find out which competitors are offering something new, better, or interesting; what your customers’ biggest issues and longer-term plans are; how your company can help with these; and so on. Take notes and follow up. In B2C companies, watch focus group discussions from behind a mirror. Listen in to call center interactions. Spend time in the field with sales people. Serve customers in stores. Use your own and your competitors’ products as often as possible under real-world conditions. Get your friends and family to do the same—and get feedback. Don’t just rely on data and reports.
  • Speak to (at least) three kinds of customers Locate 1) your most loyal customers, because they’re the backbone of your business and you want to make sure you’re serving them well; 2) the most innovative customers, because they can help you understand future market trends; and 3) the most dissatisfied ones, because they can tell you how to improve customer experiences, especially by identifying the main drivers of dissatisfaction that destroy loyalty (lapsed customers can be even better for this).
  • Share what you learn—widely Where possible, record or video your customers’ comments. This helps you engage colleagues in discovering what’s driving customer satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Wolfgang Baier, CEO of Singapore Post, puts it like this, “if you know what customers say, everyone in the organization will want to engage with you.”

As a marketer, you must be the growth driver for your company. Get at least half of your ideas from talking with customers. Sounds too much? Remember: you just need to give up some wasted time.

How can you free up time to see more customers?