Corner Office-Customers: Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’?
Recently, I’ve had some terrible experiences in purchasing major consumer items, dining out at local eating establishments, and air travel that made me realize that organizations truly focused on serving customer needs are not only rare, but are on the verge of extinction.
I don’t know if the cause is an Internet age that’s making people impersonal, a focus on profits before customers, or the rudeness of the American public in general. Whatever the reason, business leaders must take the charge to create customer-focused organizations in order for their businesses to survive long term. So I thought I’d write my own advice column about creating customer-focused organizations. (“Dear Abby” doesn’t have to be the only advice column around, you know!).
Dear Mark: Most of my employees, especially in the information technology and operations areas, believe that being customer focused is something that the sales and marketing folks do. How should I respond?
—Stuck in the Mud in Minneapolis
Dear Mud Bound: Let me share with you a Hummer-sized answer for getting you out of the slop. If all your employees had a better understanding that your business exists to serve its customers and how their job fits into that purpose, you would be more effective in rallying your organization around the customer’s vantage point.
For example, your operations folks should be trained to understand that what they do affects the services customers receive from your organization. Perhaps you could send them out into the field to ride along with your best salespeople so they can see how the products and services are used on a daily basis. Take the time to explain to your entire organization how their jobs affect customers—from the boardroom to the mailroom. Wallow in the mud or drive out. The choice is yours.
Dear Mark: We’ve had numerous training seminars about customer service, and even hired an expensive motivational speaker to talk about putting the customer first, but nothing ever seems to change around here. What am I doing wrong?
—Banging My Head Against the Wall in Milwaukee
Dear Sore Head: First, take some serious drugs for the headache! Now stop to think about what you’re asking your employees to do. You’re not just asking them to focus on your customers, you’re asking them to change their behavior. And anytime you ask people to change, they start to wonder what the heck they’re doing wrong in the first place!
To move past that, you need to explain that they aren’t doing things wrong, but that the future state of the organization requires a different mindset. Your behavior should model how to stop focusing internally and start thinking externally to better serve customers. If you don’t follow this advice, then bang your head against the wall even harder. At least you’ll be unconscious while your business craters!
Dear Mark: We talk a lot about being customer focused, but the reality is that our organizational “silos” and systems interfere with giving our customers what they want when they need it. How do I eliminate the politics and bureaucracy that are getting in our way?
—Herding Cats in Denver
Dear Feline Shepherd: What does your organizational chart look like on paper? Does it resemble the nasty little things left in the kitty’s litter box? Does it consist of columns, like most companies’ charts? What would it look like if your best customers created an organizational chart of your business to suit their needs? It would probably look different, wouldn’t it?
Perhaps you should redraw your organizational chart and reorganize your systems and bureaucracy to put customers at the center of it all. Then, the really hard work begins as you encourage people to step outside their silos, because that’s how your customers need it to be. Constantly look for innovative ways to encourage departments to share information and work together on special projects. It’ll work if you put the customer first. You may even be able to prove that humans are indeed smarter than cats.
Dear Mark: Every time we have a management or board session about better serving our customers, all I hear is complaining and moaning about our problems and why we can’t do this or that. How can I get them to stop?
—Tired of the Stinkin’ Thinkin’ in Omaha
Dear Odor Averse: Well, maybe we should just throw a pity party and skip the damn management and board meetings! Try this to get rid of the odor that seems to permeate your meetings: Ask your directors how well they know your customers. Can they even name your top 10? Nothing’s going to change at the management level until the folks at the top show everyone else what your organization values.
If your leaders create (and fund) ways to encourage risk taking, learning, and innovation—all in the name of being customer focused—the rest of the organization will notice. The blame game will stop if you show the way forward, provide the right environment for innovation and risk taking, and make resources available for learning new things. Boards and management who only complain instead of leading the company would be well advised to remember the old Chinese proverb: “The fish rots from the head down.”
Dear Mark: My industry is changing so fast. How can I be sure our strategies, products, and services are aligned with our customers’ changing needs?
—Trying to Hit a Moving Target in St. Paul
Dear Sharpshooter: Businesses that work closely with their customers on special projects, joint ventures, customized products, and distribution create intimate relationships with their customers. The knowledge gained through working side-by-side with your customers will rub off into your business strategies, new product ideas, service logistics, and distribution systems.
Try using multiple approaches to build relationships with customers. This will assure that your growth won’t be based on luck, but will be well coordinated with what your customers want. Remember, you have a much better chance of hitting a moving target with a shotgun blast versus a rifle shot.
Dear Mark: Globalization of my business has created virtual customers around the world who speak different languages, have different cultural values, and do business in different time zones. How can we serve all these different types of customers?
—Stretched Too Thin in Des Moines
Dear Stretched: Let Dr. Mark share a little secret with you on this one: You don’t have to do it all yourself.
Get out of the old mindset that says you have to control everything and do everything right here. Yes, you are stretched too thin. Collaborate with others across the world to give your customers what they need.
This also requires being very disciplined about providing clarity regarding roles and responsibilities, and hiring the right people who share your values for customer service. Either learn how to co-opt other resources in other parts of the world, or learn how to say arrivederci, adieu, adios, or hasta la vista, baby, to your customers.
P.S. I’ve kind of enjoyed this “Dear Mark” stuff. Look out, Dr. Phil, I’m on your heels!