Customers As Assets: Getting there quickly

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Customers as Assets

Thinking about customers as assets is my first customer experience competency. The idea of ‘customers as assets’ moves you towards a simple, non-refutable measure of if you did, or did not, earn the right to customer-driven growth. It’s an unfortunate reality that many companies, despite the rise of CCO and CX work, still are not entirely clear how to value customers. Wharton (at UPenn) did research on S&P 500 Index companies from 1972 to 2013. They found that 80% of those companies were employing older business models where customers are primarily valued for their dollars — and not for their assets, insights, and contributions. This is a real problem.

Treating customers as assets is essentially the only way you can start on a path to customer-driven growth. Like I mentioned above, you need to earn that right to customer-driven growth. Because CCO work can often be a new position, or a position that other senior leaders don’t completely understand, you’re typically going to always be ‘earning’ everything you do. If you don’t treat customers as assets, you won’t earn the right to that growth.

Lest you think this is all about for-profit work, it’s not. In the second episode of my podcast, I talked with Martin Hand of St. Jude about honoring ‘donors as assets,’ which is a variation on customers as assets.



But … there’s a tricky time equation to everything about customers as assets. Let me try and help you.

The customers as assets time equation

Think about the term ‘customers as assets.’ If you’re most familiar with physical assets in a business, you know those take time to build up. It’s the same with customers as assets. We’re talking about strong customer relationships and customer experience. That does take time.

However, many businesses operate according to a quarterly cycle. There is often talk of “making the quarter.” I think this can be deadly to great customer experience in some respects, but that’s a topic for other posts.

The rubber meets the road here: you want to value customers as assets. But you need to show some achievements in the next three months, six months, nine months, etc. If you don’t show those achievements, your boss will start pushing back — and then it’s more about surveys and checkmarks and less about customers as assets.

How do you build these relationships in a relatively quick amount of time?

Customers as assets with leadership recipe cards

I’ve created “customer-centric recipe cards” right here on this site.

The customer focus competency recipe cards are based off the five customer experience competencies, which I’ve developed over 30 years of doing this type of work. (You can learn even more about the competencies here.) They are:

  • Customers as assets
  • Align around experience
  • Build a customer listening path
  • Proactive experience reliability and innovation
  • One-company accountability, leadership, and culture

To do this work successfully, you need a place to begin. These customer focus competency recipe cards are quick, explicit actions you can take to begin improving your customer experience immediately.

For example, let’s talk about customers as assets. If you download the customer focus competency recipe cards at that link above, you’ll find six recipes to help you immediately get rolling on treating customers as fundamental strategic assets. Recipe 3, as part of the “Give Permission” aspect of customers as assets, is the “Kill A Stupid Rule” movement. This allows employees to identify rules that erode customer trust and diminish employees’ ability to drive value — and, once ID’ed, kill them. Fun, yea?



You can learn more about how to use the customer-focused recipe cards here.

Don’t hesitate to reach out regarding customers as assets

CCO work can feel isolating. If you ever need help developing plans and strategies for treating customers as assets, don’t hesitate to reach out.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for reiterating this point. I have long listed ‘customers’ (and employees) as assets/resources – and every employee from frontline partners to CXOs needs to act as ‘fiscal stewards’ when engaging them. Across retail, customer support, marketing or research and learning initiatives, respect for each customer’s investments (time, opinions, monetary, etc.) is paramount. The goal should be to augment the effectiveness and efficiency of engagements through enterprise-wide, cross-functional innovation. Consumers do not need to interface directly to benefit from innovation either. Parallel-path contract processes might deliver a new experience to market weeks faster than if non-strategic initiatives are allowed to interrupt achievement of strategic operating objectives. Thanks again, Jeanne!

  2. Stacey
    Thank you for your feedback! Your term “fiscal stewards” is a great characterization of those roles. Companies can take a great cue from how you have elevated that role to honor those folks and enable them to deliver value in these critical moments. Too often the front line is penned in and become more policy cops than deliverers of value.

    Bravo!

  3. Thank you, Jean. After reviewing several of the CXWeek videos, it seems curious that some categories (automotive) are well behind in the game and still taking a rather haphazard approach, in contrast to Audi’s initiative. I actually spoke with a few Audi dealers about their involvement in the program, just to get that perspective.

    It’s also interesting in the context of premium luxury goods such as brands that compete and partner with Nordstrom. In many cases, they have not begun to embrace the notion of online being, at minimum, an omnipresent extension of the customer’s current in-store experience. Having driven the insights and optimization program for that launch in 1998, I am surprised it has taken brands so long to follow the brand’s lead. Have you seen this as well, and across other industries? (Banking is one in which change may come in starts and stops because banks rather enjoy their position in the market – for now.

    Please let me know if I can ever be of assistance on one of your panels or as a sounding board in the future.

  4. Stacey
    I agree with your observations. There is a silo based approach that continues in many organizations where the store experience is crafted separately from the online experience. Our work is forever constant as we need to continue to guide the silos to act together to deliver the one-company experience that customers crave!

    Thanks so much for your feedback and observations.!

    J

  5. Hi Jeanne

    Not all customers are assets; financial or otherwise.

    All those who have carried out a customer valuation recognise that up to 15% of customers may be unprofitable; essentially because the costs to serve them are greater than the revenues earned from them. Any incremental value available through their insights, their recommendations and other contributions – what Kumar calls their ‘Total Customer Engagement Value’ – will rarely be enough to cover their core unprofitability, no matter how you treat them.

    And as if that wasn’t bad enough, compensating for the losses created by unprofitable customers means you have to save on things that could be used to grow the value of more valuable customers, such as creating new services, expanding customer service or improving the customer experience. Undeserving customers in effect, take from more deserving customers. A difficult and unsupportable position in contemporary business ethics.

    At some point the hard economic (and moral) realities of doing business in a competitive marketplace have to prevail over the motherhood and apple pie of customer-centricity.

    What would YOU do with those customers who will never be profitable and who will never become assets, no matter how much you treat them as such?

    Graham Hill
    @GrahamHill

    Further Reading:
    Kumar et al. ‘Undervalued or Overvalued Customers: Capturing Total Customer Engagement Value’, Journal of Service Research
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247744906_Undervalued_or_Overvalued_Customers_Capturing_Total_Customer_Engagement_Value

  6. Graham
    when i say manage and honor customers as assets, it includes doing the math that your suggest…and facing those facts. There is a segmentation of value and profitability that is important for a company to understand. Without that…when a most valuable customer contacts a company or needs help, or is at risk, the company will just treat them as a “vanilla” customer with the same value as others. Bottom line, we are in agreement.

    the idea of this notion is to stop survey addiction and to build a simple metric of the growth or loss of the customer base, based on volume and VALUE – which is what you are espousing above. The other part of this is to HONOR and take care of the customers whose asset you don’t want to lose

  7. Hi Jeanne

    I am pleased that we are singing off the same metaphorical hymn sheet.

    A few years ago I attended an Automotive conference in Berlin. I was stunned by the speaker from Lufthansa, talking about the airline’s Miles & More frequent flyer programme, who said that it used Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) to differentiate how it managed customers. It wasn’t the fact that it used CLV to manage customers, but that CLV was only forward looking. In other words, only customers with the highest FUTURE CLV would receive the red carpet treatment, customers with the highest HISTORICAL CLV would be treated the same as everyone else.

    This raises an important question about ethics and fairness. Should we only treat customers with the highest future value to the red carpet treatment? Should customers who may have provided hundred of thousands, or even millions in value in the past be treated any less well? Or should we treat them the same as every other common or garden customer?

    Thoughts on a postcard.

    Graham Hill
    @GrahamHill

  8. Hi Graham,

    my internal cynic just asks me since when businesses care much about ethics or fairness when it could come in the way of making money 😉

    Of course I agree with you, but for one statement. It is not the overall future CLV that they are looking at, else they would value the existing frequent flyer – given that (s)he continues to regularly fly – the same as the potential one.

    The problem, same as for telco customers as you know, is that existing customers are considered captive as they are not likely to change, anyways. So why should there be more than a token investment into retaining them? They’ll stay, anyways. The new one, on the other side, still needs to get lured into the loyalty program trap (higher tier equaling a few cheap benefits, cheap for the airline, that is – I still have a decade old Airpoints that I cannot redeem because it is ridiculously hard at Lufthansa, even as a Senator …).

    Overall, I think there is a systematic problem. Want to have a look into Denis Pombriant’s new book to get his thoughts. I think he formulates a solution.

    2 cents from Down Under
    Cheers, Thomas

  9. Hi Thomas

    I agree with you in practice. Many companies take a fairly short-term, linear view of commercial success. That means they only focus on the few things that immediately lead to success. If I make these promotions, I will acquire more customers. They often don’t understand, or don’t want to have to deal with the longer-term, systemic things that really drive commercial success. If I treat these customers fairly, not only will they buy from me, they will also buy other things from me and tell other people about how good I am too. They might even turn me into a desirable service brand.

    My point about fairness was a systemic one. We are all highly tuned (by evolution) to spot being treated unfairly and as the behavioural economics studies show, we will punish those who treat us unfairly (and enjoy the righteous satisfaction from doing so). Companies need to be wary of being too short-term and linear in their actions lest they create a fairness deficit in the minds of customers. If a company only treats me as though I do not have a past, I will treat it as thought it doesn’t have a future.

    Let me know what you think of Denis’ new book.

    Best regards from Rhöndorf; although sadly it is too cold to be sitting outside having an ice-cream.

    Graham Hill
    @grahamhill

    Further Reading:

    Schweitzer and Gibson, ‘Fairness, Feelings, and Ethical Decision-Making: Consequences of Violating Community Standards of Fairness’, Journal of Business Ethics
    http://opim.wharton.upenn.edu/DPlab/papers/publishedPapers/Schweitzer_2008_Fairness,%20Feelings,%20and%20Ethical%20Decision%20Making.pdf

  10. Hi Graham,

    best regards back from chilly Christchurch – got beautiful views at the snow capped Alps from here. Better to have a hot chocolate than an ice cream, too 🙂

    I agree with the fairness point. However, evidence shows that the punishment part is not that strong. Look at airlines (meanwhile even the Air NZ loyalty program really sucks, they are doing now what Lufthansa did in the late 90’s early 20’s), banks, utilities, telcos, ISPs, …

    They all concentrate far more on the next customer than on the existing one. Isn’t the only explanation for that a lack of (perceived) options in combination with some laziness of the customer?

    Cheers
    Thomas
    @twieberneit

  11. Hi Thomas

    I agree with you that punishment of a seller for treating you unfairly is not as strong a motivator as finding an alternative solution. However, as the old saying goes, ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’.

    I remember being treated unfairly by T-Mobile about 15 years ago. The number keys on my Nokia feature phone were starting to stick so I took it back to my local T-Mobile shop to get a new one. I thought that as I was three months before the end of my contract, that as I was happy to renew my contract early and that as I had ARPU of approx. Euro 500 per month, they would simply swap the phone and renew my contract. I assumed wrongly.

    The salesman checked my details on the shop system and coldly informed me that I was three months before my contract and T-Mobile did not renew contracts early. I reminded him that without a working phone I couldn’t call and they would lose three months of ARPU, some 1,500 Euro in all. He wasn’t interested and said the only thing I could do was to buy a new phone for Euro 200. I left with my teeth grinding at the unhelpfulness of the salesman.

    When I got home I immediately went on eBay and bought an identical SIM-free, second-hand Nokia phone for Euro 20, which arrived a couple of days later. It worked perfectly.

    I told me story to a colleague who told me that my phone should have still been under warranty by T-Mobile and if I took my original invoice to any T-Mobile shop they should have simply replaced it. He was surprised the salesman had not told me that. Spurred on by revenge, I searched through my old invoices from two years earlier and found the one I wanted.

    The following weekend, I returned to the same T-Mobile shop, saw the same salesman and brandishing my invoice challenged him as to why he didn’t tell me I was eligible for a replacement phone if I brought my invoice to the shop. He didn’t have an answer. Pressing home my advantage, I demanded he replace my broken phone for a new one. He went in the back of the shop and returned with the same phone as my broken one and the one I had just bought on eBay. I left the shop with a smile on my face having got one over T-Mobile and the unhelpful salesman.

    I never did use the new phone. I didn’t even intend to use it. I had already transferred my data to the phone I had bought on eBay. I just wanted to cause T-Mobile and the unhelpful salesman some financial pain for treating me unfairly. The new one sat in its box for almost ten years until I needed a simple but reliable feature phone for a long foreign trip.

    The moral of the story is simple. If you treat customers unfairly and they get the chance to do so, they will exact their revenge at a later time. With interest.

    This wasn’t the only time I, or my family was treated unfairly by T-Mobile. The next time cost them Euro 112,000 in lost future revenue, as I described in a blog post on ‘T-Mobile: Three Strikes and You’re Out!’ (http://customerthink.com/t_mobile_three_strikes_and_you_re_out/)

    Graham Hill
    @Graham Hill

  12. Yesterday I powered on my 1.5 year old MacBook Air 13″ (still under warranty). When it didn’t respond I immediately reconnected the power cord, then tried multiple other compatible cords – nothing. After a painful process to set a Genius Bar appt in a retail store (try making the appt on an iPhone without the serial number; even with it, the process appears to be a perpetual cycle), they determined it was a warranted hardware issue and it required them to send the computer in for a period of 5-7 business days. Reminded of my experience with my iPhone and every vehicle I’ve ever owned, I inquired about a loaner. I was told I could a) activate Apple’s ‘Joint Venture’ program, http://www.apple.com/retail/business/jointventure/terms.html for “$500 or so” or b) take it to an Apple authorized dealer – there is 1 in immediate Los Angeles area. Note the JV program was never mentioned when I bought the computer and Melrose Mac, the Apple authorized dealer, has no Mac’s available. Thus the saga continues as I await quotes on the rental cost options that might be available. Note also that Apple does not disclose the hyper-inflated costs of its anemic warranty program because to do so would obviate Apple’s abortion of all best-practice principles at the “handoff” from acquisition to retention and ‘new customer’ satisfaction. It obviates Apple’s lack of empathy for its customers and the very real resource constraints it heaps upon customers at the moments they already face great difficulty in forward progress with day-to-day management as everything used in that process is locked up within a system that Apple now holds for ransom. And Apple’s “Customer Has Zero Future CLV” mindset for in-warranty business heuristics reinforces Apple’s failures in comprehensive customer experience journey mapping for its Apple ID program (When my husband died, I was forced to get a second Apple ID because Apple designers failed to anticipate – no, empathize with – any major life events that would logically result in a customer’s name change [death, marriage, adoption, gender reassignment, witness protection program, etc]) or in its unwillingness to provide resources (products) and to empower retail business leaders to use situational awareness and discretion in the context of sustainable business practices and insight-based decision tools (customer has 2 iPhones, 2 iPads and 1 MacBook Air to influence consumer and customer-centric outcomes. In doing so, it rebukes any marketplace perception that Apple is or could be of a world-class innovator across the consumer experience landscape. (Don’t get me started on Apple’s monumental failures within HR and recruiting innovation, and ’employees as assets’ thought leadership). Please note that website buildout for Marcelle.co is on hold pursuant to the above.

  13. Hi Graham,

    Funny you should write about T-Mobile. While heading In-Market Consumer Insights, I worked on advancing a consumer and customer-centric view of the business, and that included the paying-customer/employee hybrid who are an increasingly large proportion of any company’s customer base. Two insight-gathering initiatives and two anecdotes directly relate to your experience: 1. World-class warranty exchange program: with leadership advancing concepts that minimally iterated on extant industry-wide programs, I included one concept in which consumers might pay $1-2/month for the right to a NQA full-exchange of any device within the warranty period and another that had them paying $0/month for refurbished but fully functionally (essentially certified buyer’s remorse scenarios); though the two concepts were overwhelmingly preferred, the company chose to implement short-term solutions; 2. T-Mobile’s multi-million dollar brand tracker was anchored by category-related and emotional attributes identified 8 years prior (resulting in multi-colinearity – all fail almost equally in predicting the dependent variable or outcome of choice, be it consideration, preference or NPS). As a result leadership ennui toward the results rendered the program useless – until my team persuaded management to inject relevance with attributes that embodied the category’s metamorphosis amidst convergence and consumer needs and expectations;
    3. Handset Warranty Exchange: a businessman on Oahu entered a T-Mobile store on a Saturday at closing time with his non-working T-Mobile device which was still under warranty. The TMO agent determined the issue was NOT customer-induced. Foreign travel the next morning precluded the customer’s departure from the store without a working device. So with no identical device in-store, the agent swapped out the SIM card from his identical device which he gave to the customer. The customer experience was made right and the agent got a new device the next day from a nearby store;
    4. Employees as assets: when Deutsche Telekom mandated T-Mobile USA to cut operational costs, then retiring-CEO Robert Dotson targeted extraneous healthcare benefits as a principle contributor. The company employed Chapman Kelly to audit ‘domestic partnership and dependent’ coverage and announced t-Mobile would eliminate ‘unverified dependents’ and other cost drivers within 12 months (July 1). With my late-partner and spouse terminally ill, with T-Mobile’s employee Code of Conduct (the basic premise being that “at T-Mobile, it does not matter that something is merely legal. What matters is doing what is right!”) on public display on the corporate website as an overt form of advertising, PR and investor relations to existing and prospective employees, marketers and business partners and having coerced me to engage FMLA benefits/rights on April 7 (effective through September 7) with a full-upload to directors and VPs of my partner’s 6-8 week prognosis effective May 12, the company laid me off June 4 with an effective date of July 2. And as of August 2015, in response to a letter I wrote directly to John Legere in which I proposed an empathy-driven and customer-based approach to corporate policy making and a proactive organizational development approach, T-Mobile’s senior director of HR and its senior in-house counsel maintain “T-Mobile acted LAWFULLY.” It’s an important distinction because it obviates a corporate culture anchored by a disassociation from what long-term views of sustainable business practices. It also disavows any respect for NPS and eNPS. Moreover, it all speaks to Deutsche Telekom’s refusal to advocate for cultural sensitivity in an increasingly global economy overwlelmed by the selfish antics of multi-national organizations (adept at taking advantage of slow-acting legislation that might preclude it) and at the behest of greed-driven, entitled, morally bankrupt billionaires (whose personal fortunes are synchronized with those duplicitous and deplorable business practices). One need only engage consumers in India, Myanmar, Bangladesh or the rest of APAC and LATAM markets to to comprehend the scope of companies like Facebook and Amazon using consumers and customers as the antithesis of assets, and to appreciate T-Mobile’s willingness to do its part with relatively little focus on it globally.

    And so with T-Mobile CEO earning $20-30 million per year yet aggressively challenging consumer-rights advocacy group EFF on ‘Who the ‘eff’ are you and who pays you?’ In response to the company’s disavowal of customer rights and company promises, T-Mobile’s continued use of a simple quote recognizes the caveat it assigns to every one of its ‘#1 in JD Powers Wireless Customer Satisfaction’ rankings (and each recognition by Ethisphere, or HRC or anyone else…

    “Being #1 in wireless customer service is like being the tallest dwarf!”

    A bit much to absorb and internalize a dehumanizing quote like that while being asked on orientation day to internalize and live that new code of conduct, to embody the company’s corporate values and to embrace and honor the company’s diversity (as determined by MBTI or any one of dozens of other personality tests [improperly derived by a housewife and daughter duo from the work of Karl Jung and for means that conflict with Jungian beliefs and methods]) used by 89% of Fortune 100 organizations to obfuscate poor HR leadership who cling to relics of the pre-digital world.

    So yes, “customer as asset” is and will be anchored to a large degree by “employee as liability” mentalities prevalent in many of the world’s largest corporations.

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