A new focus

Companies ask for more courses on understanding customers

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Print this page by Heather Hayes

Cost-cutting may have been de rigueur during the recession, but companies are realizing that they’ve got to turn outward to thrive in the budding recovery. That recognition has resulted in more demand for executive education courses that help companies understand their customers and aid them in achieving business goals.

David Newkirk, CEO of executive education at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, likens this situation to the idea that companies need to sell services or solutions, not just products. But such a shift requires a lot more than just a new marketing slogan — it requires a new way of thinking.

“What it means is that the people who are in contact with the market have got to really understand their customers, their customers’ economics, how they do business, their strategy and their value-added structure, and they’ve got to understand that in a very in-depth way,” Newkirk says. “It really requires a completely different kind of teaming, because you’re being required to approach a customer and jointly experiment with them on how to use your products and services in new ways.”

That approach translates into a course content that develops a richer set of business skills than core product knowledge and selling skills. At Darden, faculty are working to develop those skills in executives through a greater focus on collaboration, innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership. Darden professors also encourage greater understanding of public policy and diversity training. Diversity training is valuable because “customers often come from a very different business culture,” Newkirk says.

“What we’re doing is changing the mix so that now it’s less about operational effectiveness and much more about understanding and communicating with your customers — so you can figure out how to help your clients make money,” explains Newkirk. 

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