Getting close to global customers for design inspirations

Smaller companies do not have the resources to send an anthropologist all over the world for design inspirations and research, nor to visit thousands of businesses across the US, like Intuit does, for insight into how businesses run their businesses. However, like INTEL has done (see below) you can afford to systematically talk to your customers and even prospective customers for insight in how to build a better product or offer a better service.
Jet Blue’s CEO always talks to customers and gets their views and insight directly, why not you?

The NY Times writes OVER the last two years, Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist employed by Intel Research, has visited 100 households in 19 cities in seven countries in Asia and the Pacific to study how people use technology. Twenty gigabytes of digital photos later – along with 206,000 air miles, 19 field notebooks, two camera batteries, five umbrellas, three hats, two doses of antimalarial drugs and one pair of her favorite sandals – she has come back with some provocative questions about technology, culture and design.
Some of what she learned in the field will be folded into Intel’s design process, passed on to industrial designers and engineers and perhaps eventually embodied in a device. But many of Dr. Bell’s findings also raise deep questions about the meaning of technology in an interconnected world.
Her fieldwork project began four years ago with the insight that Intel might have a misconception about the potential users of its products elsewhere in the world. “We thought, there’s a group of people just like us all over the world who will buy the technology and have it fill the same values in their lives,” Dr. Bell said. “I was fairly certain that wasn’t going to be the case. I’m an anthropologist. Culture matters.”