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I got a letter today from someone who said: “I can never get hold of CEOs. I hope you are different.” It made me wonder when is it that CEOs stop being accessible?

I pride myself on being available to customers. I will regularly answer phones (in fact I have just been shunted to sixth in line for calls on hold ? apparently I am out of the office too much); I listen, I learn, I answer. I love it. It is where I get my best stories from. You could question whether this just is the best use of my time. Perhaps, but some of our greatest innovations have come from listening to customer contribution.

I remember years ago when I was working for an airline. It spent a fortune running a cultural change program. They flew everyone to Melbourne and all 15,000 staff were guided through a two-day program to teach us to “reach out” to customers, to listen to them, acknowledge them and ultimately be seen to act on what they suggested. The airline is no longer in business so clearly, something did not quite go according to plan.

But at the time I could not help but marvel that the general manager, despite what he had spent on “cultural change” could walk through an airport without ever looking anyone in the eye, let alone thank them for doing a great job or saying hello to a customer. So all the customer focus training in the world was not going to make one iota of difference if it was not truly “lived” from the top.

I said to myself, ‘I will never be like this. I’ll make sure I always listen’. I do listen, I definitely look people in the eye and I act on what I hear. Have I set myself up to fail? If I miss a call or do not respond in time, is that taken that I no longer care?

I’ve learned that with the first 100,000 customers there are 100,000 opinions on how we should be doing things. Listening for real opportunity among the myriad ideas and endless opinions is the challenge. Not being overwhelmed, taking one call at a time and acting on opportunities has kept us innovating.

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