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What Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Taught Me About Getting to Know Your Customers Despite the push toward chatbots and technology-driven customer service, nothing can replace determining what your customers want through personal social interaction.

By Brent Ritz Edited by Kara McIntyre

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

I have built four No. 1 international brands in my lifetime, throughout which time I learned some valuable lessons of my own — and I now feel that I am of a certain age where I want to share that experience and teach others.

I was fortunate enough to learn from those that were great at what they did, including Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. They helped shape who I am and how I work and, in the best form of flattery, I modeled myself after them until I could make it better.

Related: Here's Why Customer Experience is the Driving Force for Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs

Is customer digitization ruining your business?

The information technology space often speaks about the digitization of customers and turning them into numbers and data in order to effectively market to them — yet my experience tells me the exact opposite is true.

I know that in today's world, it is still about customer face-to-face interaction. We should only use the numbers and data to inform and support customer relations, not to remove the human aspect of business. Now more than ever, customer attraction and retention are about creating trust, the initial relationship, execution and how we serve our customer's needs in a way that they understand that makes us and our businesses successful.

Finding the value in technology

Technology undoubtedly provides access to data surrounding the value of the goods or the service, the customer, the user interface and the user experience. Still, we have to take a personalized approach to meet and support our customers. The code is just the bridge to get to that face-to-face interaction and open up the commerce value. You still have to know your customer and gain their trust. That is very much a personal relationship that a computer or data can never replace.

Technology companies and their engineers should be the first to realize that their front-line workers are the ones engaging and providing the customer experience for them as their representatives. They, in fact, are the resources being deployed by the technology and the company's most valuable asset.

Without a doubt, it's essential to learn how to attract and retain staff members that know how to use the resources but not be overtaken by them. They should be treated and valued that way. The sad truth is that many tech engineers and tech executives think of themselves as superior beings, but that's hardly the case. The reality is they are just as disconnected from their businesses as they are from the workers that represent their companies; without connecting with the business operations and the personnel on the customer-facing front line, they will only have their ideas of what is needed.

This is something I have learned and, having benefitted from great teaching, know will never allow a business to reach its full potential. Tech engineers and executives need to learn by doing the work to fully understand the demands of the business customers and be able to answer their real needs.

Related: How to Use Tech to Revamp the Customer Service Experience

Leading by example

Sam Walton, who built Walmart, worked with his shoppers in his stores daily. He did every single job function to understand his business and to identify the smallest inefficiencies. Only by doing so could he truly understand what changes were going to benefit the staff and the customer. For as long as I can remember reading Forbes, four of his children are in the Top 20 wealthiest people; they, too, learned the importance of fully understanding the businesses they are in from the ground up.

I met Bill Gates in 1997 while attending an investment banking meeting in Beverly Hills, and I was up in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time. The only flight there had one coach seat left. Being a muscular 265 lbs at the time, wearing an expensive Italian suit and having a completely different ego and demeanor than I have today, I was quite grumpy about it.

While heading to the very back of the plane, I was somewhat surprised to hear a familiar voice behind a newspaper talking to someone. That someone was no other than Bill Gates.

I asked him what he was doing back here. He answered, "This is how I get to know people." It suddenly clicked; sound advice from one of the world's richest men who made Microsoft into what it is today. That meeting had a big influence on me, and I took my seat in coach to reflect on how true what he said was and, more importantly, why it was so important to his success. He knew the value of knowing what people want by actually hearing about them and their life, not by a perception created from his own ideas.

When I arrived at my meeting at The Beverly Hills Hilton to finance a high-end hotel, a golf course and a housing project to be designed by Brian Adler, designer of Beverly Park in Beverly Hills, guess who was sitting right next to me? Bill Gates. Well, Bill lives there today in Palm Springs. The kicker is that Breakthrough Energy Catalyst, a fund that he backs, now owns the majority of Hilton.

Another influencing factor in who I am today comes from a time when I consulted Steve Jobs briefly and came to find out a few things. Steve Jobs is likely the most credited person of his time with bringing many new ideas and inventions to market, yet this didn't happen through luck. It came from his time getting to know his customers. My understanding is that he did customer service for Apple for three hours every day to get to know Apple's customers. He knew that he needed to understand the problems with Apple and to find out what people who may buy Apple products wanted. He then built what the customers asked for.

My own success and the stories of others are how I have become what I am today, and how I know that technology will never replace humans in understanding a business.

Related: Steve Jobs and the Seven Rules of Success

You only know what you allow yourself to learn

In conclusion, my mantra of "Know your customers and your business" is one that is probably shared by every successful business owner. You can't leave it all to machines; you need to learn for yourself what your customers and potential customers want.

Only those that fail to see the importance of every human involved in a business, whether potential or existing clients, junior or executive staff, by taking time to understand their roles and listen to their experiences will never be the best they can be. Never become too great to spend time in coach. You can either take it from me or from these other well-known characters that share this commonality, but this is a lesson that will serve you — and your business — well.

Brent Ritz

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor


Brent Ritz is the founder of UBER. At one point in time, Ritz maintained 16 qualifications and licenses, primarily in finance. Ritz has studied design, real estate, business administration and law.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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