Customer-Centric Circles: The Bottom-Led Customer Focus

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We studied Customer Strategy in the last article. The Customer Strategy starts a Customer alignment and culture at all functions and levels as part of our Customer-centric objectives. This establishes what we call ‘Customer Conduits’, which are a top-down approach, driven by the CEO to make the organization Customer-centric.

Here is an example of how a bottom-up approach to Customer focus called Customer-Centric-Circles. This is a powerful way of getting front end people to become Customer Centric.

Godrej Pest Control instituted Customer-Centric-Circles in their 15 Mumbai centres. Each centre housed sales people, technicians, order takers and dispatchers. The Customer Centric Circles consisted of people from all these sectors. They started to discuss why customers got angry and found solutions to this.

Most of the reasons were coming late or not prepared to handle the job. The circles quickly discovered that late arrival at a Customer’s was caused by incorrect address taking or poor sequencing of visits. Thus technicians had to spend time finding the Customer’s house, or the distance between two Customers was large due to poor sequencing of technicians’ jobs. The communication on what the Customer wanted caused the technicians to be better prepared.

The order takers and the dispatchers realised that they caused problems by inadequate planning or poor address taking and corrected this. In addition a courtesy system was used to get the staff to interact with each other improving team work and communications.

Result was that the technician was able to make 6 calls a day versus 4 before the Customer Circles started. Sales per salesperson went up by 30% because of better communications, causing the sales people to react to the Customers’ need promptly. Customers were much happier and the relationship between the technicians and the Customer improved, so that the Customer started to ask for the technician by name.

How to Set Up Customer-Centric-Circles

Customer-Centric-Circles — Customer Circles for short — are a bottom-up approach to Customer centricity. The term ‘Customer-Centric-Circles’ is really a misnomer, because it is a company-sponsored group of people (generally frontline employees, some managers and others from support functions) mostly having regular contact with Customers, and people from communications, IT, business development, environmental affairs, manufacturing and product development among others. Customer Circles may not necessarily have Customers in it per se, but this group of people will focus on the Customer.

Ideally we would like to have Customers in the Customer Circles. However, it is difficult to get the right type of analytical Customers who could commit the time to be in an ongoing initiative.

In any event, the Customer Circle is a task force to run a Customer-focused project with targets, responsibilities and timetables. The first step is to raise the self-esteem and awareness of employees on Customers. The front line people develop strategies for dealing with Customers at a local level. They devise ways and means to make it easier for the Customer to do business with them. They find methods to touch the Customer and to give the Customer a great experience. Customer data, information, inputs, complaints or plaudits should be made available to the Customer Circle, as and when it is available, or an effort should be made to collect such feedback.

Running Customer Circles

The process starts by building the employees self–esteem. We want them to feel good about themselves, and confident they can do positive things for the Customer. Next, we want them to become generally aware of what is happening around them, notice more, ‘see’ more, and what they hear. This will build an awareness of the importance of the Customer. What you’ll find is that the group will come up with better ways to handle a Customer.

Through this process, awareness of the Customer in the company and among the employees will invariably increase. But before all this, we must understand the Voice of the Employee, his pain points, and increase his self-esteem, and awareness on the Customer. Along with this, we must capture the Voice of the Customer and the Voice of the Competitor. We then go into a Continuous Customer Improvement program

Basically, this is a bottom-up approach to energizing an organization to become Customer Centric.

The Customer Circles must collect data on the Customer, plan on how to track every contact and experience, and chart out future touches and experience, keeping the retailer (in a B2C case) in the forefront. They must talk to the Customer, get feedback from the market place and learn what they can about the competition in both formal and informal ways.

Employee Empowerment

Customer-Centric-Circles are akin to level 3 empowerment described by Jan Carlzon of SAS Airlines, where employees are self-managing and can make decisions. They will take ownership of the Customer and the Customer initiatives, because these are their own ideas.

Management does not tell the front line people what to do. The front line people suggest what they wish to do, and management asks what help the front line people need to make them successful. Thus we make the employees the owners for Customer focus. What the employees propose is common sense. What they suggest is what the company would have wanted the front line people to do!

What we find is that if we can show the frontline people the results of their actions through Customer feedback, and if this is positive, we notice that the frontline people get a sense of pride and a sense of achievement. The motivation level on serving Customers better goes up.

People will stop saying “these are our rules”, “didn’t you know our rules”, “you should have known” and other irritating remarks.

Customer Circles and Shared Visions

Customer Circles engender shared vision and teamwork. They are a pillar of a learning organization, where people work together for shared goals and beliefs. They allow the building of promises, and working together to make things happen. They lead to creativity, and making people think about mastery, and in this case, mastery of habits, responses, approaches to the Customer, of building systems and methods for better Customer delight and Customer Value. A shared vision is not necessarily an idea but a desire or a force in people’s minds and hearts that drives them to achieve extraordinary goals; for example making Customers happy!

The group builds its own (its members’ or participants’) self-esteem and awareness and decides on action steps, including building the Customers’ delight factors and Do Not Annoy (DNA) factors.

The problem with a top-down approach is that top management “dictates” a vision, and does not build it with buy-in of key players at all levels, nor is it built on personal and shared visions. Visions spread because of commitment, enrollment, clarity, enthusiasm, reinforcement and communication.

Understanding current reality and accepting it, without clouding it with perceptions and blame avoidance, are important to shared visions and Customer Circles. Cynicism, being ordered or told to do things, of being taught rather than self-learning and organizational structure, all conspire against success of Customer Circles.

Customer Circles and Team Learning

Customer Circles are inter-disciplinary teams. The success of Customer Circles depends on individual excellence and learning, and how well the team members work together. It depends on managing individual skills and merit with team spirit. Unaligned teams waste energy. So teams have to learn to align themselves and develop the capacity of the individuals in the team effort.

Customer Circles help the team to deliver more than the individual can. Teams are dependent on the members, who need each other to achieve more and deliver. It requires listening and respect, such that you let your own opinions be overridden. It teaches you to overcome conflict and use dialog to work together, and it builds discipline of team learning. Dialogue makes people observe and improve their own ideas and thinking.

Teamwork and team learning requires a facilitator or a catalyst, and requires people to suspend their beliefs to listen to others and to regard each other and colleagues who are present to help us.

These Customer Circles can become a self-learning system. With Customer Circles, the organization is bound to become creative and innovative. People want to be part of such an organization, and participate in the innovation.

The principle has to be that no one should be too proud to learn. And not too proud to learn from anyone. Continuous learning and participation will lead to Customer excellence.

If you want to run a Customer Circle, you can get details on participants and frequency, methodology (please see my book Total Customer Value Management).

Do It Yourself

Total Customer Value Management helps all departments and executives to have a Customer focus. It is the foundation of building a Customer culture.

Customer strategy and Customer Centric Circles are building blocks of the Customer culture and a Customer mind-set. This gives the company a great competitive advantage. Do you find your executives talking about how to improve Customer Value? Have you attended such meetings?

  • How much work is done on processes and systems in your company versus mind set
  • Does your management believe training can change mind sets or is it a self-directed change in people
  • Rate the mind-set of the front line people, of the executives and the top staff on the Customer
  • How could you get someone who is loyal to your competitor to become loyal to you? Give a generic answer and another answer specific to the context
  • Are companies loyal to Customers? To employees? Should they be?
  • If they are, what are the benefits and the downside?
  • How will you set up Customer Circles in your company?
  • Do you need more than one circle?
  • Should there be an apex circle consisting of top managers and Customer Circle leaders of front line Customer Centric Circles?

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