Bill Foulkes wants you to hire Michelangelos.

By that he doesn’t mean a bunch of Italian guys with scarves and skinny pants. He’s talking artists.

Why? Because Foulkes, who teaches business to art and design students at the Rhode Island School of Design, believes that these people understand your customers better than you do. We challenged him to explain himself. What follows is an excerpt from that conversation:

Q. What does it mean for a company to be customer focused these days?

A. Most companies think of customer-focused as having terrific data and terrific reliability and predictability about their customer. But the best companies are always a little bit ahead of their customers. It’s like a high-wire act. You have to simultaneously be in touch with your customer and know them in the present, while always trying to understand where they’re going to go in the future.

At RISD we have these classes called critiques where artists are constantly critiquing each other’s works. And they say frequently, “What does this work want to become?” It’s a great phrase and mindset that can apply to businesses. They need to be constantly asking the same question about their customers.

Q. I think companies struggle with where to focus when trying to improve the customer experience so that it makes a difference to the business. If I make aisle 9 smell better, is that really going to drive more revenues? How do you know?

A. I don’t think you can. That might not be the answer that people want to hear. I think companies need to take a page out of the venture capitalist book in the sense that maybe one in ten of the things you experiment with to improve customer experience is going to work out. It’s this idea that, yes, you’re going to bomb, but you bomb really fast.

Q. How can having artists and designers integrated into your organization help with this kind of experimentation?

A. Artists have a great deal of empathy on both the physical and emotional levels. It’s what makes them great at what they do. So, they get the “who” – the customer. And frequently they have skills to create the “what” – a prototype. It’s why I think designers are great natural business people.

Q. What do you say to people who voice skepticism about the softer skills you’re talking about?

A. Even in business to business, your customer is still a person. And I think the idea of understanding both the physical and the emotional needs is vital. So, yes, you’re selling to another business, but that decision maker is a person. There’s still plenty of room for making their decision making easier, more confident, more appealing.

We’re all in the entertainment business now and we’re all in the art business. Some of the new technologies like mobile and 3-D printers are actually forcing us to think magically and companies don’t like to think magically. You have to think hard about your people and their skills and have processes and, most importantly, a culture, that focus everyone’s attention on the customer experience.