Priorities, People and the Customer-Centric Organization

A question: Is it even possible to find a business today that will not call itself customer-focused? Are there any out there honest enough to own up to the fact that their businesses are essentially about their goals, their desires and their specific needs?

It would be very tough to find those companies — although we all know only too well that they exist. Businesses understand that the right thing to say is that they are customer-focused; it’s one of those things that people expect, and since it’s what your customers want to hear, it’s what you say.

However, what you say you are and what you actually are can be two entirely different things — and if you don’t create a truly customer-centric organization, your employees will realize that you’re only paying lip-service to the idea. Once your employees realize that you aren’t really committed to being customer-centric, your customers will catch on in very short order.

What Message Are You Sending?

No business is ever conceived without the customer in mind — it’s just that the details of running a business can build up until they devour all the attention your organization has. CRM consultant and all-around smart guy Brent Leary has written about the idea of the attention economy in the context of social CRM, saying that there are only so many ideas customers can absorb. The same goes for those who serve customers. They only have so much bandwidth to grasp and prioritize ideas passed down through management.

If the manager in a hardware store, for example, pounds the staff with messages about restocking, sweeping the floor, changing end displays and so on, but never talks about the criticality of customer service, it should come as no surprise when the employees prioritize customer service below all those tasks the manager is so much more adamant about.

The same goes for the upper management. If the focus is always on numbers, product placement, sales techniques and personnel issues, the middle manager is likely to prioritize those issues above the customer.

All these criteria are mostly focused on doing what’s right for the business. They’re business-centric tasks. While they have to be handled, they can’t be handled at the expense of the customer. While those tasks are important to sustaining the business, there will be no business to sustain without the customers.

Nurture Employee-Customer Partnerships

So how do you build a customer-centric business? It has to start at the very beginning. As Southwest Airlines’ management is fond of saying, “hire attitude — train skills.” Staffing your organization with people who already have an affinity for the customer is a critical place to start. While you can train people about the details of your business, it’s much more difficult to train them to adopt a mindset that puts the customer first.

Next, realize that people don’t repeat behaviors if they’re disincented from doing so. Place specific emphasis on working to see things from the customer’s point of view, and reward employees for doing right by the customer. Don’t ding them when they perhaps allow a routine activity to slide to the next day if the reason for that had something to do with helping a customer. If you do that, you’re reinforcing business-centric behavior.

Third, chase the holy grail of customer relationships — that is, the scenario in which your customers feel like your employees are your partners. That means making sure employees are trained sufficiently to be able to offer advice as peers, and that they also know enough about your customers to provide valuable, specific, informed advice.

If they can’t know each customer that well, then enable them to ask the right questions. Make sure that they know it’s okay to say they don’t know the answer; as long as you also give them the ability to locate the answer, that authenticity helps build relationships and makes sure customers get the information they need.

Finally, make sure that the idea of customer-centricity is not limited only to your customer-facing employees. This attitude can make the entire company run better. Every part of the organization should feel the same level of accountability that’s felt in customer-employee interactions.

That’s not just to make things go more smoothly internally; there may be times when your finance department talks to a customer, or when manufacturing gets data directly from a client, or when some other back-office function is exposed in order to do business in the best way. These employees need to reflect the rest of the organization’s approach for two reasons: first, because it’s likely to help things get done more expeditiously; and second, because the contrast between a customer-centric employee and one who isn’t is likely to be rather jarring to the customer and can erode the relationship you’re trying to build.

Loosen Up

Customers can see right through companies that don’t really place them on an equal footing in the relationship, regardless of what the company mission statement or latest press release might say.

The only way to evolve with the changing customer is to maintain a focus on customer needs and the way customers want to do business. You can’t do that by stubbornly sticking to processes that benefit only you.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at Forecasting Clouds. He has been a technology journalist for 15 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he’s not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he’s wearing his airplane geek hat; he’s written two books on World War II aviation, and his next two are slated for publication in 2010.

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