Staying Small While Growing Big


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I’ve been fortunate in my career. For the first 10 years, I worked for a small company with about 100 employees and total revenues under $5 million per year. Later, I worked for a Fortune 20 company with revenues topping $100 billion per year and over 45,000 employees. What I learned in the small company stayed with me in the large company and proved to be powerful principles for building strong customer relationships.

1. No job is too small. In the small company I had to wear many different hats – one day I was the head of marketing pitching our company’s services to a new client. That same day, I could be answering the back receiving door and unloading a pallet off a semi-truck. When I joined the large company, there were all these silos and invisible organizational lines you weren’t supposed to cross. One day when I was running the company’s voice of the customer program, I read open-ended comments from a customer that alarmed me – “Someone needs to call this customer”, I thought to myself. Internally, there were no rules or policies about who should contact a customer in that situation. The large company wanted to form a committee to build a 90-day plan to determine who should contact the customer. In the meantime, this customer was fuming and would leave long before the committee even met to decide what to do. I contacted the customer directly, and was able to quickly connect them to the right person to solve their problem. That simple action began a robust closed-loop follow up process where we built processes for following-up with customers within 48 hours – addressing hundreds of customer problems and involving thousands of employees in the process. We didn’t need a committee – we needed a mindset that no job is too small.

2. If you see it, you own it. When I worked for the small company, if I saw a paper that fell on the floor in the hallway, it was mine to clean up. It didn’t matter where it came from. It didn’t matter whose “job” it was to do building maintenance – we had customers that walked around our building and I may have been the only person in the company to see that piece of paper before one of them ran across it. We used this same principle with our kids as they were growing up – if they see a pair of socks on the floor, they own picking them up and getting them to the laundry. In the large company we introduced this same kind of accountability into our voice-of-the-customer program. One of the challenges we had was around effectively resolving customer problems quickly. We instituted the, “If you see it, you own it” principle and improved customer problem resolution by 23% in one year. The concept was simple, whenever an employee saw something wrong in a process, in a communication, in a technology system – it was their responsibility to get that problem to the person who could fix it. Too often, employees pass these issues by thinking that it will get caught later in the process before it touches the customer, but when everyone thinks that the customer is the one who gets to catch the error.

3. Listen to your customers. When I worked for the small company, our customers were representatives of large consumer products manufacturers. They were actual people, with names and I would routinely talk with them about their business and their life. I got to know each of them by name, and understand very well their expectations of our firm. Those simple conversations and relationships made the bond between their company and our company strong. If they were ever to leave for a competitor, they wouldn’t be leaving a nameless corporation, they would be leaving their friend, George, who helped them that one day when they were in a bind. This same principle applies to large companies. You must listen to your customers. The good news is a lot of large companies today are adopting voice-of-the-customer programs to institutionalize this into their organizations. Go beyond summarized survey statistics. Go beyond key metrics and driver analyses. Add open-ended verbatim comments and when you get them back, don’t just categorize them into broad thematic areas using a software package. Read every single comment. Have your senior leadership team read a sampling of comments. There is nothing more powerful and emotionally motivating for a company than to read actual word-for-word comments from a customer. Find other venues to let customers discuss their wishes, hopes and expectations openly – customer advisory groups, one-on-one in-depth interviews, unstructured web and social media comments. These are powerful insights that will align your company to serve customers better.

Three simple actions you can take to maintain a small feel in your company even as you grow large. They are simple, but they are also profound in their application. Listen to your customers. Take accountability to improve their experiences. Cross organizational silos. When you do these things you will reap the rewards of creating a more customer-centered company.


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