Because I’ve done, and continue to do, a good deal of presenting, training, research and consulting on customer life cycle, customer behavior, enterprise customer-centricity, and employee ambassadorship, general questions which most often come my way, especially by younger pros, have to do with acquiring skills in these areas. The questions reflect their academic orientation, but also that they are short on practical customer-related application.
In Socratic fashion, I’ll often respond to these queries with my own question: What good is a beautifully-designed building ff it has a structurally weak foundation, imperfectly lined up walls and doors, and leaky pipes? As you’ll see, if you read on, the answer is C.I.A. C.I.A. is virtually everything a company does, but especially its strategy, structure, managerial style, and capabilities, buy-in and loyalty of employees at all levels, will impact on customers. Further, customer experiences and relationships, indeed all customer-related processes, need to embrace and include both internal customers (employees) and external customers (end customers, former customers, potential customers, suppliers, the financial community, etc.) at planning and implementation stages.
Creating and sustaining customer loyalty requires both a corporate and individual mindset on behalf of customers. The mindset must be both proactive and commitment-based. It is people and processes that make experiences and relationships effective, or ineffective, not merely the application of technology, service, or any other individual component of the customer journey.
Marketing theorist Theodore Levitt has said: “The purpose of business is to get and keep customers”. That’s an easy-to-understand way of postulating that, next to having a proactive, customer-centric culture and infrastructure, everything else a company does is secondary and/or serves that objective. Leading-edge customer research organizations have determined that the most successful companies have a focused and well-integrated approach to customers. They have also found that, while companies consider having such a single, integrated approach to be a key priority, very few have been able to fully achieve this goal. How to achieve it? C.I.A.
A company’s creativity and resilience, strength of culture, and effectiveness of proaction can be assessed through the manner in which these characteristics are focused on optimizing customer loyalty and value. What I’ve come to understand, and try to pass along when I’m asked questions, is that there are twelve common attributes of customer-centric enterprises, depending equally on the successful interplay of architecture, engineering, carpentry, and plumbing. I’ve labeled this interplay and components C.I.A., so it’s easy to remember:
• Total company involvement in customer retention and loyalty
• Active internal communication, cross-functionalism, and cross-training
• Employee proaction and continuous learning
• Visible, energetic and involved senior management
• Customer data mining, one-to-one understanding and insight
• Hands-on research, communication skills training
• Regular direct customer contact by all staff levels
• Customer partnership and sharing of information
• Formal, and frequent, customer experience research
• Full inventory complaint gathering, evaluation, and response
• Customer and competitive data used as a foundation for improvement
• Internal and external customer teams
Several years ago, there was a business press article on shaping customer behavior, saying that many companies were finding barriers to the full implementation of customer experience and relationship management: culture, time, senior management commitment, integration issues, and technology. Most of the senior executives interviewed were evasive in stating that customer loyalty would lead to increased profitability, puzzling because the proof for this has been both available and general knowledge for decades. Perhaps the explanation is that, given a choice of relationship-building devices to implement immediately, the most frequently selected first choice by these execs was a generic, commoditized customer loyalty program. This is the type of fuzzy, convoluted, tactical thinking which can undermine even the most resilient of companies.
In a recent in U.K. customer experience study, results among 1,000 adults showed that only eight percent believed that regular contact with suppliers is more beneficial to themselves, while over fifty percent thought that such ongoing relationship benefited the suppliers. What was worse, only nine percent of these respondents wanted that contact to be driven by the supplier. These are somewhat alarming numbers, and they strongly suggest that 1) consumers are rejecting common, push-type customer relationship practices and 2) more actionable and granular measurement protocols are needed to optimize advocacy behavior throughout the customer experience and customer life cycle.
To succeed at customer experience management, the cold reality is that frequency programs are not enough. Great product is not enough. Exceptional service and customer-sensitive staff are not enough. Use of new communication technologies, sophisticated software, and multiple contact channels is not enough. Tight, efficient operational processes, though essential to sustaining customer loyalty are also not enough. What works is the company-wide commitment to customers, the ongoing creation of customer-perceived value and ‘barriers to exit’ which lead to loyalty, advocacy and, ideally, bonding with the brand..
Success will be defined by four outcomes: getting the right customer in the first place, building the highest share of customer possible, generating optimal perceived value over the customer’s lifetime, and having the lowest voluntary churn (among both customers and employees) to build cultural continuity. This requires both discipline and commitment. It’s not easy, and nobody promises it will be; but, like Levitt’s definition of the purpose of business, it is elegantly simple. And, as a result, via C.I.A. so are the answers as to how proficiency can be built.