Don’t Drop Customer-Centric Programs Just Because They Don’t Fit the System

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Trade may be truly called an ocean; and those that sail in it, however experienced, have always need of directions; the various changes and turns that it takes in the nature of things, and by the length of time , are such, that the most experienced tradesman may stand in need of new instructions and hints, and make daily discoveries of things, which he knew nothing of before.




This gives, a new face to things; and the manufacturer has daily new rules to learn, new customs to set up, and new measures to take, such as forefathers never knew; and so it will be to the end of time.

—Daniel Defoe, The Complete English Tradesman

It is not a new phenomenon this need for change. Far from it! It has been going on for centuries. Each generation comes up with a slogan to drive the change. Today’s is “customer-centric.” Ask any business leader if his or her organization is customer-centric, and the answer will always be affirmative. But is it really?



Was IBM so stuck on the motto of “if it can’t work in our business’s computer system, it can’t be done”?

When I was a retailer, we had developed a trade-in program for dinnerware. If we wanted to get new dinnerware into people’s cupboards, we had to find a way to get the old out. It was a big hit with our customers because “his mother gave it to me, and I hated it” and “I wanted roses, and he didn’t and I’ve hated it ” and “I have become more sophisticated in my entertaining than when I was 18.” I heard volumes of reasons why the trade-in program was so popular. It was an early version of making our store customer-centric by meeting the customers’ needs. It was so popular, we designed a similar program for stemware. But with the increased dependency on the computer, retailers dropped these programs because they did not fit the system.

I have to confess that I did not originate the trade-in program. My uncle, Dan Zell, an expert in watches, developed a “watch trade-in” program for the same reason. To get a new watch on someone’s wrist, you had to get the old one off the wrist. The trade-ins were used for “loaners,” when people brought in their watches for repair. What prompted me to borrow the technique for dinnerware was when the Hunts of Texas were trying to corner the silver market and silver prices were skyrocketing. The makers of sterling silver flatware (knives, spoons, forks) began offering a trade-in program if someone wanted to buy a new pattern of sterling flatware. Actually, they were “buying back” the silver at less than they could buy material on the commodity market. That’s when our customers started to ask if they could trade in their dinnerware for a new dinnerware pattern. If there ever was proof that “the marketplace drives the market,” this was it.

Old machines

While this was going on, I was sitting on our local school system’s Business and Marketing Advisory Committee. Part of our task was to approve new computer purchases for classrooms. During one presentation, the local IBM salesman was on a roll until one teacher asked, “What are we going to do with the ones we haven’t even opened yet?” That was the end of that session.



Later, I met the local sales manager and asked why, in order to get the newest computers into the classrooms, they didn’t offer the old ones to teachers or, for that matter, students for a very low price. The look he gave me said, “Are you kidding?” Now, many years later, I’ve related the story to a lot of former IBMers, who tell me that such a trade-in proposal would have meant the sales manager’s job.

What was the culture at IBM that would cause such an attitude toward innovation on behalf of its customers when the company’s reputation, at the time, was one of being an innovator? Why was I told there would be retaliation if a sales manager made such a suggestion, even if it came from a prospective buyer? Was IBM so stuck on the motto of “if it can’t work in our business’s computer system, it can’t be done”? That would assuredly foster a deterrent to making changes. Or perhaps IBM, like the auto industry, was telling its marketplace, “This is the way we do business, so either buy or don’t buy”?

There is lots of innovation in the information technology field. But when IT’s limitations stop innovative thinking in the user’s marketplace, is it technology, itself, that deters sales instead of promoting sales? Or is it simply the idea that if it can’t be put on the computer, it shouldn’t be done? Is it time, then, to turn off the computer and start innovating new policies that react to what the marketplace needs or is asking for?

What Defoe called “new measures to take” could today be called moving your business to becoming a truly customer-centric organization by looking “inside the box.” No, not your product box. Your customers. Learn each customer’s business culture and develop ways to be adept at adapting your business to meet how the customers work.



It will not be easy, but doing so, I believe, will open doors for additional business.

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