Don’t Just Change the Company-Centric Tires; Go for the Full, Customer-Centric Alignment


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Imagine your company as a car, wanting to drive across a tantalizingly narrow ground fault that separates the great mass of traditional, company-centric organizations from the select few, customer-centric companies already on the other side. Now imagine that your car wobbles and vibrates because all four wheels have gone out of alignment. Plus, your transmission slips, and when you gun the engine, you create more noise than forward motion.

Do you stomp on it and risk clearing the gap—when failure means plunging into the crevasse and wrecking your car, or at least incurring a humongo body shop bill?
Nyet. But at least you’re in good company staying on the company-centric side. Most corporate vehicles are too badly out of alignment with too many mechanical problems to take the risk. But can you afford to just sit there? What happens if your competitors streak past you and cross over safely? You’re toast. That’s what happens.

You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you wait, inevitably, competitors will whiz past you and cross over to customer-centricity—where customers, including your own customers, will flock to them. But risking it with a car not up to getting across produces an equally adverse outcome—without the wait. What’s a poor company to do?

Align your damn company, that’s what. And take care of the mechanical stuff slowing you down. And what the hell are you waiting for?

Unfortunately, some companies are “waiting for Godot.” They’re going to wait and wait—their leaders’ hands frozen to the wheel and their feet locked on the brakes—until the whole, customer-whatever “fad” fades and their companies can continue crawling along at company-centric speed. Too bad the newly customer-centric environment is only becoming more so, and knowledgeable forecasters see no end in sight.

Even some historically hardcore customer abusers—Oracle, Delta Airlines, Boeing and Best Buy—are shedding or have shed their company-centric scales.

So why resist alignment—and some accompanying mechanical work? Why not wheel your company into the shop and get in sync? Because aligning a company is much harder than aligning a car. Corporate alignment means change: organization chart change; changing some management folks who are wedded to the old ways or compensated for maintaining them; changing staff members who are out of sync with new job descriptions; and changing technology—very possibly scrapping stuff you’re not close to fully amortizing.

And alignment today doesn’t mean internal alignment for efficiency’s sake. It means customer-aligning: figuring out how to add new value to customers; letting customers shape your business; coming to grips with the reality that companies no longer run the show, and profits have to be earned, not taken.

Not only are you damned if you wait and damned if you take the plunge without fixing yourself first, but also you may be damned if you try to repair your corporate vehicle and suffer a lack of will or get beaten back by the internal forces resisting change. All options are risky. But two bring certain risk beyond your control. The third brings potential risk you can control—if you’re determined.

That’s why the trend toward doing repairs before taking the customer-centric leap continues to gain momentum. Even some historically hardcore customer abusers—Oracle, Delta Airlines, Boeing and Best Buy—are shedding or have shed their company-centric scales (and based on some company knowledge, I would suggest that the current Best Buy pricing flap probably results from bad process, not reverting to bad old habits).

Why the change in these four? They had to change. Oracle turned around when it shunted Larry Ellison off to the side, before customers put a price on his head. Delta went through bankruptcy, coupled with customer disgust. Boeing, with its arrogance, almost lost its customer franchise to Airbus—and changed senior management, not once but twice. And Best Buy was reacting to pervasive customer hatred; management understood that no company could survive such customer animosity. Makes you appreciate how crises can help catapult companies from the company-centric side to customer-aligned behavior. Also makes you appreciate the plight of companies that remain moderately or sometimes very successful despite not taking the leap—successful enough to assume they’re insulated from the growing risk of staying put.

But regardless of whether they’re under customer pressure to change, and despite the hurdles attendant to change, smart companies with strong leaders continue forging ahead and aligning with customers strategically—then aligning around customers operationally.

Companies that make it to the other side start by first developing customer-centric strategies. Then they redesign their business process to support strategies, not to cut costs (although aligning process to support customer-centric strategies trims more fat than focusing on cutting out fat). Then they take a hard look at their information systems—seriously revising information flow; integrating disparate sources of customer-related data; and especially adding new automation software required to enable new customer-related process (and process-savvy readers will recognize that little process escapes having customer impact).

And along the way, these companies involve and contend with people, people, people. They do this by …

  • Including line staff as well as managers in designing change

  • Evaluating staff and management against new job requirements

  • Retraining some folks and unavoidably letting some go

But these companies successfully flying over the fault line continue to be a minority, even among those who are attempting alignment and mechanical repair. We see lots of outfits pulling into the shop for a paint job. We see others do only the work that fits into their currently committed budget—leaving critical work undone. We see a whole bunch pecking away at the work in any sequence they please—like changing the tires and then driving before aligning the wheels. And most pathetic of all, we see many companies tooting their horns while they pull up to the shop door—only to drive away when they suspect no one’s looking. That’s like declaring yourself customer-centric but changing nothing or, even more futilely, developing customer-centric strategies but not aligning operations to deliver them.

But hey, these companies won’t clear the fault. They’ll get their just deserts. And their competitors that successfully cross over will be greatly enriched as a result.


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