Overcoming the gravitational pull of the office requires extraordinary effort.

Succumb to this powerful tractor beam and your life is an endless stream of internal meetings and activities that lack any context for the realities of customers and the marketplace. Spend too much time inside your own walls, and you create your own alternate reality…one that lacks proper connectivity to the issues that should define your team’s priorities.

The truth is in the field.

Effective leaders strive to gain the critical context of customers, competitors, suppliers and partners. They are driven by a need to understand the “situation,” and they work to translate this knowledge into critical context and well-defined actions for their team members.

The view to the parking lot from your office windows only changes with the seasons.

5 Ways to Help You/Your Team Gain an Outside-In View

Not every opportunity identified below is open to every leader, but if one or more of these can work for you and your team members, seize it and soak it up!

1. Ride with a Rep

Without a doubt, some of the best “education” I’ve ever received has come from riding along (or flying with) sales representatives for a week at a time. There’s something powerfully educational about listening to a target customer’s real world objections, hearing and seeing customer problems and challenges and even having your head handed to you from a customer unhappy with products or policies. While there are some issues in making this work (and even in making it digestible for the Reps involved!) you learn to walk a few miles in someone else’s shoes and the Reps gain a valued advocate inside the organization.

2. Carefully Leverage Industry Events

I offer this one up with a big block of salt. If you are going to insert yourself or your team members into an industry tradeshow or conference, remember that this isn’t simply an opportunity to take a field trip and dine and drink on the company. (Yes, I’ve seen it done too many times not to offer fair warning.)

If appropriate, volunteer to play a role in the booth. Create mini-events…customer roundtables or user sessions. Use after-hours to network in the industry and even to gain insights from your field-based colleagues. Gain permission to listen-in on booth conversations with prospects and customers. Attend educational sessions and ensure that whether it’s you or your team members, the return to corporate includes an update session for the broader team on key insights and observations.

3. Invite Customer-Facing Colleagues to Your Team Meetings

One manager who worked for me did a great job keeping people focused on marketplace and customer issues by inviting customer-facing colleagues (sales, product, marketing, customer service, sales engineering) to regularly attend her team meetings. She rotated through the various groups, ensured agenda time to allow her team to hear from and engage with the individual, and pre-established some discussion/update prompters with the guest.

4. Expand Competitor Awareness and Monitoring

Surprisingly, many organizations lack rigor in monitoring and reporting on competitor moves or, this activity is the domain of a specific marketing group. While leery of developing a “follow the competitor” mentality, it is helpful if teams with a solid customer awareness also increase their competitor awareness.

One senior leader solved this problem by creating an open-access site on their intranet complete with competitor links and the ability to post quick updates on news releases, “heard on the street” and others. With the advent of social media, his team members follow the key executives and players at competitors, regularly reporting on blogs or twitter updates.

5. Channel Your Inner Customer Anthropologist

While I’ve saved the obvious, visit a customer or visit a customer’s site, for last, it is of course a tremendous opportunity to gain context for client challenges and how your products/services are impacting those challenges.

To maximize your time in the customer’s environment, strive to observe as much as possible outside of how your products are used. If your client is a B2B organization, ask for a tour of the operations and ask questions along the way. If your visit is focused around your products and their use internally, ask to meet with people who are internal customers of the group(s) using your products.  In the B2C world, visit sites, shop, ask questions, engage with staff, observe how customers are served and focus on looking for opportunities to better help your customer serve their customers.

The Bottom-Line for Now

We can’t all be in the market or with customers at all times. However, effective leaders create opportunities to both gain market and customer views and importantly to ensure a steady flow of insights and observations into their four walls. The Outside In view trumps the view from your window to the parking lot every time!

This blog originally appeared at artpetty.com.