Intuit CEO Brad Smith dropped by the BusinessWeek office yesterday to take Five Questions from readers in a chat with Reena Jana, BW’s innovation editor. Off camera, Smith told us a little about how Intuit, an 8,000-employee public company, stays close to customers.

One strategy is called “follow me homes.” Intuit staff spend a day at a customer’s home or business. They don’t just observe how customers use Intuit products. They also watch everyday operations to get a sense of where new products or features might help. Intuit workers spent 10,000 hours on “follow me homes” last year, Smith says. As CEO, he did 60 hours himself.

That’s impressive for a company of Intuit’s size. Small businesses are usually much closer to customers than larger competitors, but many small firms fail to leverage that into new products and processes that make life better for their customers. Companies that ignore that information — that is, they fail to pay attention to what they can learn from customers — cede one of the strongest advantages of being a small player.

My favorite example of a small business CEO staying close to customers comes from a story I wrote last year about Jason Knight, then CEO of personal finance site Wesabe. Knight invited customers to call his cell phone during an allotted four-hour period, six days a week, to ask questions, give feedback, or just say hello. For Wesabe, it helped build trust for a service that asks users to punch in their bank account numbers and passwords to track financial information. The open hours also gave the CEO a direct line to the people using his product.

For more from Smith, including the story of how Intuit developed QuickBooks after watching small business owners essentially hack Quicken into business accounting tasks it was never designed for, check out Five Questions for Brad Smith. And if you have innovative ways of staying close to your customers, let us know in comments or on Twitter.

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