I was awakened the other morning by a jackhammer at 3:10am outside my Manhattan apartment. After trying with zero success to sleep through it, I called 311 and groggily reported the noise violation. The woman who answered took down the information and reassured me that my complaint would be addressed within ten days. Ten days????? “I’m trying to sleep NOW!” I told her. After hearing that it was the best she could do, I hung up and looked for a pair of ear plugs.

Examples of disregard for the customer experience abound. We can only hope that the video of the United Airlines customer being dragged out of his seat and off the plane sparks a new era of customer empathy and understanding across multiple industries.

As executives, managers and marketers, in everything from product development through customer service, understanding customers and their needs is an essential part of our jobs. There are many ways to do this, but as a starting point, here are three good ways to better understand customers and their needs in order to provide better experiences with your products and services.

First, become a customer yourself. A major airline was looking at declining share in the overseas first class market. Flying first class on both their own airline and competitive airline they discovered significant differences in the experience. They then sought out other first class experiences in related industries, such as dining, to see what customers who fly first class are accustomed to getting for their money. As a result, the airline made sweeping changes in its first class service, and increased customer satisfaction significantly.

Second, watch customers in action. Ethnographic research allows you to observe how customers interact with your product or service. GE transformed MR scanners for pediatric patients after observing children who were terrified of the MRI experience. The new machines and the décor in the rooms they’re in resemble themed playgrounds. They’ve made the entire experience so fun that children ask when they can go back. Check out the Tedx Talk at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jajduxPD6H4. It’s a beautiful story.

Third, talk to customers. Well moderated focus groups represent a great opportunity learn more about customer motivation, desires and pain points. They can be used to dig into the whys of consumer behavior observed in ethnographic research, or to discover new insights and hypotheses that worthy of investigating further through ethnography or other methodologies. For me, I feel a valuable personal connection to customers that I don’t get through research reports.

All three of these methods allow us to develop a necessary empathy for our customers and clients. Without this empathy we run the risk of dragging our customers down the aisle of our own self serving policies, procedures, biases and cost constraints—ultimately, to our detriment.

What methods do you use to keep in touch with customer needs? Post your answer below.