Why Do Companies Fear Customer-Alignment Screening?


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Have you ever had a cancer screening? If so, you know how scary it can be. You really don’t want to find out you have cancer—but if you have it and don’t do anything about it, your life is at risk.

In the business world, there’s another “big C” that’s invisible to the naked eye but often deadly if left undetected and untreated. As with people and cancer, business executives fear customer-alignment screening of their companies. And if the organization is out of alignment and you don’t know it, customer misalignment can wreak havoc on the organization’s corporate health.

So why aren’t companies running to customer-alignment clinics? Partly from corporate hubris. Executives just don’t believe customers can bring their companies down. Never mind the plethora of dead, dying or sick companies: all three U.S. automakers; most major U.S. airlines; Blockbuster Video; CitiGroup (not for the mortgage mess, but for failing to realize that “big” is not a customer benefit); Circuit City; CompUSA; Home Depot; Macy’s; Lucent Technologies; Siebel Systems; Sprint Nextel. They all zigged when customers zagged—or stood pat as customers and customer needs changed—and wound up misaligned with customers. Despite these and many more examples that should send a red flag shooting up the corporate pole, many corporate executives maintain a “won’t happen to us” posture.

His first direction was, ‘Whatever you do, don’t break my company.’

There’s another reason companies fear customer alignment screening—or at least the outcomes. Say a company does a customer-alignment check-up and discovers serious misalignment. What happens next? Treatment. For cancer patients, it’s chemotherapy and/or radiation—”treatment” you’re very reluctant to undergo if your life isn’t on the line. And for misaligned companies? It’s developing new business strategies that cede more control to customers; redesigning business process to align with and support new strategies; then expanding and reconfiguring information systems to align with and support new process; plus empowering customer contact employees to be customer advocates. Treatment you’re very hesitant to undergo if your company isn’t on the line.

Unfortunately, and despite all the evidence to the contrary, many executives still don’t believe they’re putting their companies at risk by failing to address customer-alignment issues. Some give lip service to improving customer relations but wind up “putting lipstick on the pig.” You know the scenario: advertising slogans saying, “We love our customers”; corporate memos saying, “Be nice to customers”; “staying in closer touch” with customers by pounding them with email and postal mail; believing that cross-selling is a customer benefit because it encourages customers to “do more business with a trusted brand.” That last one really makes me want to hurl.

Then there are the corporate managers who don’t even bother with lip service. They believe they have an inherent right to manipulate customers and “control” customer behavior by whatever means it takes. Talk about la-la-land.

Fear of change

Then there are those who sort of “get it” but fear change too much to act. We worked with a COO on a process alignment project a year and a half ago. His first direction was, “Whatever you do, don’t break my company.” Several months later, we showed him our report. He called the entire management team together and said, “Our company is broken, and these guys showed us how to fix it.” Since then, stasis, plus several missteps contrary to our advice: “frozen at the wheel” syndrome. Over all, it results from managers not walking their talk or talking the language of business 10 years ago—or is that 20 years?

So how do you get people to change? We can sure tell you what not to do. My research partner David Mangen and I labored to develop a customer-alignment assessment; then we put it on the web and promoted it: a free assessment with real-time scoring that takes less than 15 minutes. Heck, we had difficulty persuading our own clients to take it. Summing up their feelings, one exec confessed to not wanting to take it because, “I didn’t want any negative feedback I’d feel obligated to do something about.”

Making customer-alignment screening free and easy definitely isn’t the answer.
So what else? More education about marketplace realities will help, slowly. But waiting for the message to sink in is like watching paint dry. And then there’s the “reality bites” approach—waiting for companies to stumble and then trying to persuade them to better align with customers. But by that point, they may be past rescue. What else is there?

Actually, the answer’s pretty simple: Change the conversation. Rather than talking to senior execs ad nauseum about something they don’t want to hear, we can get their attention when we address an issue that’s top of mind for almost all execs: cutting costs to stay competitive.

Ironically, aligning around customers streamlines the organization. When we apply our Visual Workflow process approach, the potential reduction in full-time equivalent count in functions we’re redesigning averages about 10 percent. That gets folks’ attention. But what about all the “customer stuff”? Although that “customer stuff” will produce exponentially more returns than cost cutting, from a management perspective, it’s the icing on the cake. It’s not exactly the way we’d like to persuade our companies or clients to improve customer-alignment, but it’s, perhaps, a practical necessity.

All this makes me think: “Too bad business executives aren’t as brave as cancer patients.”

If you do want to “subject” yourself to 15 minutes of real-time, customer-alignment feedback, the assessment is still up at www.h-ym.com. And it’s still free.


  1. I competely emphasize with your comments. I have a client memo warning me about presenting research results. He relates that his people have espressed doubt about researchers…that we have a bias…like stockbrokers, that we may be trying to sell rather than trying to simply observe (whatever that means). I guess the prevailing opinion here is that all stockerbroker recommednatiosn result in lost money so research recommedations must follow close behind.

    Getting research used is, indeed, the biggest problem researchers face. Coming at it from a cost cutting basis is intriguing. Care to elaborate on your approach?

    Bob Kaden

  2. Bob – thanks for your feedback. For more information on how we cut costs while helping companies become more customer-centric, please visit our site (www.h-ym.com)and download our free whitepaper about Visual Workflow, our office process design approach. Or, for a quicker read, I described some about VW in my recent blog post, “Geeting Through Layoffs Without Losing Customers.”


  3. I know that one of the issues that I often see in my client work is a desire on the part of some to use research much like a drunk uses a lamp post — for support as opposed to illumination. If they are biased in this fashion, any good, objective research is perceived to be a threat simply because it may run counter to their biases — and this might require them to do some more work! Dick, I suspect that this is part of the issue that we ran into with the customer alignment screening tool.

    Bob, my suspicion is that you are running into some of the same perspective in the client memo that you reference. It takes a strong, inquisitive person to be receptive to research information, especially when the results may run counter to their hopes. And these days, with the strength that customers are getting in the marketplace, the results are all too often suggesting that life in the marketing trenches might be difficult for those who want to rely on gimmics as opposed to delivering fundamental value.

    David J. Mangen


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