Faces in the Mirror: Employees Think They Know What Customers Value


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Some may remember an episode of ’90s sitcom Murphy Brown, in which Candace Bergen, as Murphy, is viewing a focus group about her news program, FYI, through a two-way mirror. In a key scene, focus group participants are asked to describe the personalities and presentation styles of various members of the program, beginning with Murphy’s colleagues, Corky, Frank and Jim; and they do so in positive, glowing terms. When they get to descriptions of Murphy, however, the perceptions turn sharply negative. Murphy is identified as abrasive, abrupt and insensitive—just a few of the unflattering perceptions of her interviewing and reporting style on the program.

Hearing and seeing this, Murphy jumps from her chair, bursts out of the client viewing room and confronts the focus group members. She asserts that, deep down, she is really warm and caring; and she questions why viewers don’t see her in that light. Though played for laughs, this scene is all too representative of the value delivery perceptual gaps that often exist between suppliers and their customers. Simply stated, employees frequently see both the importance and the performance of key value drivers very differently when compared to customers.

In preparation for Customer WinBack, my 2001 book on customer loss and recovery co-authored with colleague Jill Griffin, we conducted original research among purchasing agents and sales/marketing managers to better understand the essential value delivery perceptual differences between customers and suppliers.

Our sample included a statistically valid cross-section of purchasing agents in both business-to-business and consumer product and service companies. Purchasing agents were selected because, while others often influence purchases and may even be instrumental in decision-making, it is the purchasing agent who usually has the most day-to-day contact with suppliers. Sales managers from business-to-business and consumer product and service companies offered an overall perspective of the entire selling and support process. Finally, we included marketing managers because they are frequently responsible for their company’s communication efforts.

Misinterpreting the reflection
One of the first things we wanted to know from the purchasing agents was whether they saw their suppliers as commodity-oriented, i.e. providing competitive prices and basic service and support, or customer-oriented, working to deliver optimum value and benefit. Customer-orientation, which emphasizes relationships and high customer commitment and advocacy, correlates very closely with customer loyalty behavior.

Only 43 percent of the purchasing agents said their suppliers were customer-oriented, compared to 73 percent of the sales managers and 71 percent of the marketing managers who thought that purchasing agents would consider them customer-oriented. This significant difference was a telling clue into the degree of misinterpretation and misperception between customers and suppliers. The two groups are not speaking the same language and are struggling to make one another understood. It’s also critical to understanding why the level of customer defection is so high at most companies.

We asked each group to assess the importance and performance of close to 20 elements, or attributes, of value delivery. These included both functional, or rational, attributes and emotional, or relationship, elements. Like the results to our first question, these findings were sobering and revealing. Other than pricing, need anticipation and communication channel availability, purchasing agents consistently gave high attribute ratings far less often than sales and marketing managers. Many of these differences were in relationship and communication areas, essential in leveraging customer advocacy.

Figure 1

One of the things that particularly struck us was just how low purchasing agents rated their suppliers in key relationship areas. For example, fewer than 10 percent gave “excellent” ratings on communication, follow-up, service support, supplier dependability and flexibility/adaptability attributes. In the aspects of value delivery that really matter to purchasing agents, especially with regard to relationships, sales and marketing managers seem not to be speaking their language. Again, this disengagement directly contributes to customer risk and churn.

Polishing the customer-employee mirror
In key interaction and touch-points between customers and suppliers, such as in customer service, you can identify the level of true focus and centricity quite easily. We have long advocated including at least one cell of supplier staff—most often from field sales, marketing and especially customer service—in every customer loyalty study done for our clients. The results are frequently eye-opening. What we do with staff in these studies is, simply, ask them to respond to the same questions asked of customers, in the way they believe customers will rate and evaluate them as a supplier.

We’ve frequently found that customers consider the emotional, relationship and other intangible aspects of value delivery—trust, communication, interactive/collaborative components of service, anticipation of needs, brand equity, etc.—much more important, and more leveraging of behavior, than the functional aspects. Customers tend to see the functional aspects of delivery as more basic and expected, in other words one-dimensional and non-differentiating. For companies involved in business-to-consumer products or services, the emotional and relationship elements of delivery may represent 70 percent, or more, of what drives supplier choice and loyalty decisions. This, somewhat surprisingly, is similarly true for business-to-business products and services. So understanding perceptual differences between staff and customers should be a priority for HRD management, as well as for managers in sales, marketing and customer service.

In case you aren’t completely convinced that debriefing staff to understand their perceptions of customer-related performance can benefit your organization, consider these three points:

  1. Including staff in customer loyalty research enables employees to have a voice. This tells people that their opinions matter, which, in turn, helps build trust between the company and staff.
  2. Surveying staff as part of the customer loyalty research process enables management to learn about specific process areas where there is disconnect between what staff perceives and what customers perceive. These revelations can open the door for needed process changes in how customers are served.
  3. Surveying staff as part of the loyalty and advocacy research process helps pave the way for staff buy-in and support of new initiatives and changes, on behalf of customers, that may affect staff, directly or indirectly.

When companies are innovative and inclusive with staff, all parties benefit. The company gets more effective employees. Employees like the participation and learning. Customers like the improved processes. Another key advantage of conducting employee “mirror” research, and one not to be overlooked, is that, in all likelihood, competitors don’t have this kind of insight. They’re hearing only from the external constituent group, the customers, but not from the equally important representatives and deliverers of value, company employees.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.


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