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  • John Chambers, PhD

Prévenance -- Art of Customer Needs

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

Leave it to the French, to gift us a word that bridges emotional understanding with sensitivity and respect for others. “Prévenance” is one of those multi-layered, cultural subtleties, not given justice by a single synonym. A Parisian colleague and friend reminded me that some things are indeed lost in translation. We think of “empathetic, foreseeing, observant, sensitive, perceptive, caring, prescient, predictive.” But they don’t capture the essence.

Prévenance is a profound awareness and anticipation of needs, emotional as well tangible. It is a way of life. As company leaders and professionals, we need this character trait.

The French also gifted us Voltaire, whose own pen of prévenance was timeless, crusading against bigotry and cruelty that he feared was enduring. And it was enduring. His writing came two hundred years before Harper Lee wrote her own masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird -- of Jem and Scout and Dill, their coming of age, their recognition that people are sometimes swept into the most hateful callousness, blind to their ignorance and insecurity. Her narrative of the Depression era, deep south is time traveling at its best. Read it and you are there. The humid summers drip off the page; the sound of rocking chairs on porches, of judge’s mallets in segregated courtrooms, resound in decibels between the bookends. We can see and hear every chapter’s imagery and voice.

It’s hard to understand the motivations of prejudice. It’s even harder to imagine the suffering of mentally-distant Arthur “Boo” Radley. The novel reminds us to see…. through another’s lens.

The book’s awful and fatalistic injustices make most of our labors look like afternoon naps. Those were big problems; bigger than what most of us will ever face.

Our companies are building the miracles of tomorrow; therefore, it is we who are building them. We may not recognize the connections, but our collective products and services are the innovation bounty -- society’s comfort and care. Our prévenance is what drives us to build – we imagine what our customers need, what they shall need.

We conjure images of our customer’s wants. And so.. we anticipate.

But is this ostensibly “soft skill” only a manager’s worry, or HR’s, or Marketing’s?

As leaders, are we promoting awareness and anticipation in every team member’s accountability?

The days of pigeon-holing an employee in rote transactions are fading. Robots are more reliable, rote-wise. But artificial intelligence breakthroughs, while impressive and admirable, are still constricted. Programmable domains, data relationships and knowledge bases are still limited. Robots cannot yet ideate in a world of seemingly infinite connections.

So why are we content to keep a heart-and-soul employee bound by strictly limited accountabilities, shackled inside a set of bullet list job functions?

Why are we not actively coaching and encouraging every manager and every employee, to extend their awareness, enhance their observation, and anticipate needs?

Instill the necessity for discovery.

Instill the value of curiosity.

Talk about it.

I was hoteling for an extended period, and the apartment building had a receptionist. Most of the time the receptionist would click open the door when a resident had an armload of bags, or when the postal service pushed a wheeled cart, laden with weight. I was there long enough to know that her job was limited. Her role was constrained to a handful of duties. One morning I stopped, and I asked about a decorative fountain in the recreation area, within eye-sight, wondering why it had not been working for the past two weeks.

The kindly woman stared at me and replied, “What fountain?”

She was not new.

There was only one fountain. And it was out of order a long time.

I wanted to clench my fists and shout aloud, “You are young. You have so much ahead of you, hopefully many, many decades. Do you understand what is happening in our world now? Do you know that robots will soon open our doors? Have you walked about the facility and seen its layout, aware of the surroundings, just in case a resident has a need?”

But I said nothing. Because my thinking was unfair; she was not expected to know the facility.

She was taught to let the postal service in, and call for help when something was suspicious. She was not coached to think in terms of the customer, to try to imagine what a customer is thinking. She was not expected to bring versatility to her role. Ultimately, this was less about her lack of maturity as it was the management’s.

In that hotel was a listing of corporate values. One was “customer focus.” Another was “urgency.”

Somehow those values were not felt in the consciousness, nor in the gut, of every supporting employee.

My guess is that young woman was more than capable to manage far more than a door switch.

In the days when smoking was acceptable, I watched a bartender who could slide bottles and yank taps like some kind of western cowboy at the draw. He was fast. And he was smart. He anticipated.

Swiftly moving down the counter alley to take another order, he passed a guy who had an unlit cigarette on his lip. Before the guy could reach into his pocket for a light the bartender’s extended hand beheld a flame. The customer leaned in toward the lighter and nodded, “Thanks.”

It was a different time, and the health unconsciousness was common. But that bartender had eyes in the back of his head.

We think of the entrepreneur as the true visionary and foreseer of tomorrow's landscape. They problem-solve, they recognize limitations; they want to smash those limitations with innovation, anticipating the market. In some cases, those visionaries create markets, foreseeing a customer need even before the customer does! But the value of “anticipating needs” is a value owned throughout the competitive firm. It is not the sole purview of the entrepreneur or the division president. Every manager should be prévenant. Every contributor, as well.

If the product can’t be scaled, marketed, serviced, then the innovation shall never reach the marketplace; it shall never be sustained, never helping ones who needed it.

The cleverest capabilities in the world and the greenfield of the open market are dependent on the value chain, the firm ecosystem, and the watchful eyes of every contributor, anticipating tomorrow far more rationally and effectively than a carnival tarot reader.

We use the “customer journey” to anticipate. See them in terms of a day-in-the-life.

Mapping customer journeys is heard often in the whiteboarding spaces of digital development. In user experience analysis, the navigation of the customer, the product’s ease-of-use, is paramount in delivering value that attracts the buyer. Yet customer journeys cut across innumerable activities of value -- the hospital's ingress/egress layout, the waiting area of an auto service station, the downstream delivery of a compound whose receiver must validate the package’s security. Sophisticated customer journeys are insights into the end-to-end experience and needs of the purchaser.

Can we relate to them? Can we empathize with them? And if so, then how do we add a valuable next step, as we anticipate their next wishes?

Customer journeys are the formalization of anticipation. They are acts of prévenance.

We don’t need to be born with it. We can learn it. We can educate our teams and managers. We can instill that anticipating others’ needs is the strength of leadership and the strength of the enterprise.

With sensitivity and awareness, we can enhance any part of the operation. The value we build in the company is sustained by all professionals, putting themselves in the shoes of their neighbors and partner departments. Why else do we call it the value chain? We are connected, and the delivery of our services depends on each party, ensuring that the needs of the next link are predicted and anticipated.

We climb inside our neighbor’s skin, and walk around in it.

To Kill a Mockingbird was never explicit about “Boo” Radley’s affliction. In the beginning we shivered with concern as we crept outside his house, through the eyes of Jem and Scout. We saw "Boo" through their eyes; he was fearful, suspicious, phantasmic. The children could never have understood his fragile and lost existence.

We faced many characters in the novel who were unable to see others' views or anticipate others' needs. Ironically and sadly, the suspicious and oblivious nature of some characters diminished their own life journeys, while hurting others. Whether we encountered scenes of prejudice or parochialism, kindness or evil, there was thematic consistency – a culture of mistrust, reluctance and trepidation. Most of them could not “walk in the other man’s skin.”

Leading our teams and leading our companies depend on our anticipation of the corporate touchpoints, internally and externally, recognizing challenges from all viewpoints, and clearing hurdles through awareness of others’ needs.

We could never know what went on inside “Boo” Radley’s head.

Yet in the closing pages, his own prévenance, under a skin of eerie quiet, blank stares, and hidden demons, became a matter of life and death -- a saving grace for the children he had wished he could befriend.

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