Steven’s Customer First model


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Extreme customer orientation is a matter of details

Extreme customer orientation is necessary, even though the word ‘extreme’ sometimes has negative connotations. Extremism is politics or religion often leads to undesirable consequences. But in the customer relationship the extremism is all positive. So why is it so necessary? It is necessary because many companies already use the phrase ‘customer orientation’ unjustifiably or incorrectly. I know of no company that would not claim to be customer-oriented. But very few of them actually practice what they preach. 80% of CEOs think that their company is customer-oriented. Only 8% of consumers agree with them. It is only by an extreme focus on the customer that the fine words can actually be transformed into hard reality.

A McKinsey study has proven that the difference is not made in the classic channels or products. The difference is made between the channels. Most companies will usually have their basic processes and products under control, but may slip up through making errors in the detail. If you look at the nuts and bolts of a company’s customer relations, you will soon see whether or not that company has extreme customer orientation. You can see it, for example, in the manner in which the company deals with complaints. Or you can see it when a company is prepared to recommend one of its rivals, if they are better able to help the customer. A restaurant that is full and suggests good, equivalent restaurants to its potential diners is demonstrating extreme customer orientation.

An adaptive business model: eat or be eaten

Daring to invest in a business model that attacks your own existing operations. That is what Jef Bezos, CEO of Amazon, did when he instructed a number of his top people to develop a concept that would make Amazon obsolete. This idea needed to be perfect in every detail – so that Amazon itself could then implement the plan before someone else did. The result was Amazon Prime. Prime is a streaming service. This means that Amazon customers no longer need to buy their books, music and films, but can have unlimited use of the Amazon libraries for the payment of a fixed monthly fee. This service is a direct attack on the basic business model of Amazon. Even so, they decided to launch Prime (a) because it is a very good idea; (b) because the market is evolving in that direction; and (c) because the risk that someone else might do it first was just too great. Extreme customer orientation must go hand in hand with an adaptive business model. 

The Angry Bird check list: fast, easy and fun

Angry Birds is one of the most successful mobile games of recent times. During the past few years its different variants have been downloaded no fewer than two billion times. The games are popular because they are easy to use, full of fun, low in cost and guarantee hours of playing pleasure. From personal experience, I know that even a two-year-old child can begin to pick up the game. By the age of four, they are experts. I use Angry Birds as a symbol for the modern customer relationship. Consumers are searching for precisely what Angry Birds is able to offer them: a fast, easy and pleasing solution.

Companies should therefore ask themselves this question: to what extent do our interactions with customers correspond with this Angry Bird checklist? 

The back office no longer exists! Everyone works for the end customer!

It is a management classic: ‘Customer orientation is not the responsibility of a single department; it is a state of mind for the entire organization.’ In our modern society this saying is more applicable than ever before. In the past, it was possible to keep most customers satisfied with good advertising and a few competent and ‘visible’ members of staff. In this way, it was possible to mask defects and shortcomings. Thanks to social media, today’s customers have a much better idea of what goes on behind the scenes. This means that the role of HR has become more influential. A customer-oriented back office starts with the recruitment and training of customer-oriented staff. Similarly, the increasing importance of technology has also made the role of the IT department more crucial than in the past, although a degree of tension often still exists between the IT wizards and the front end. Of course, the back office is much more than just HR and IT. Every department has an impact on customer relations: HR, IT, the financial teams, the product designers, etc. Without everyone working together, it will not be possible to achieve the level of extreme customer orientation that is needed nowadays.

Numerous concepts have already been devised to allow back office staff to contribute towards improved customer orientation. One of the most frequently use is the idea of working with an ‘internal customer’ aprroach. This means that colleagues – the internal customers – need to be given the same level of service as the external end users. This is a good and well-intentioned idea, but it is not sufficient. Serving internal customers does not give the same level of satisfaction as receiving positive feedback from real, external customers. A possible solution is to find ways of linking back office staff more closely to these external customers. If you allow everyone to share in the cheers and jeers that your company receives, the impact will be much greater. The more intensely your people can experience the feedback and appreciation of the market, the greater their commitment will become. When this happens, every member of your staff will be working to make the external customer happy, and not just the internal ones.

There are different ways to promote this. Placing screens with social media feedback in each department is a quick win, as is the sharing of compliment and complaint mails between different departments. Encouraging part of the management to communicate directly with the external customers can also help. So too can arranging for every member of staff to work briefly in the customer service team. In short, there are many different ways to bring your people closer into contact with the end consumer. Extreme customer orientation is not about making the back office work more effectively for the front office. In extreme customer orientation, the concept of the back office no longer exists. Everyone is part of the front office. 

The front office gets more autonomy

American restaurants are good at this. If, for whatever reason, a waiter thinks it has taken too long to serve a drink, he has the autonomy to offer it to the customer free of charge. If they see that someone has not enjoyed their meal, the waiter can again decide not to charge it. In European restaurants, the waiters usually need to ask the owner’s permission to do these things. The idea works well in America because waiters are dependent for a good part of their income on customer tips. This allows all parts of the serving process to be developed in function of customer orientation. But it can only work if the staff have the necessary degree of autonomy. Slowing the process down – for example, by the need to ask permission – automatically increases customer discontent. In other words, front office autonomy is a good thing for both the customer and the staff.

Eneco, a fast growing challenger in the Belgian energy market, believes in this philosophy of front office autonomy. At the start of 2014 they launched their ‘flower power’ program for their helpdesk staff. Their call center workers can now decide autonomously whether or not to send customers a small gift or mark of recognition, such as a handwritten card or a small bunch of flowers. This is not only designed to defuse problem situations, but can also be used to thank positive and enthusiastic customers or to console people confronted with personal dramas (such as a death in the family). There are no hard and fast rules. The employee decides. Everybody wins.

In terms of autonomy, there is only one rule the management needs to give: ‘always decide in favor of the customer, without discussion’. Managers and entrepreneurs who succeed in giving their employees this level of trust will find themselves doubly rewarded. They eliminate the delay and frustration that is otherwise caused by the need to ask permission for even the most minor routine matters.

The forgotten parameter! Behavior follows reward

The final test to check the seriousness of a company in their approach towards extreme customer orientation is their bonus and evaluation system. If a company claims to be customer-oriented but only has a purely sales and financial-based bonus system, you would be wise to doubt the truth of their claim. 

Some management teams ask why they fail to make the transformation to extreme customer orientation in spite of the time and resources they devote to workshops, communication, etc. The answer is usually to be found in the forgotten parameter: their failure to adjust their bonus and evaluation system. Behavior follows reward.

Economist John Kay discussed this paradox in his book ‘Obliquity’: the best way to reach an objective is by an indirect route. The most profitable companies do not make profit their number one priority; instead, they strive to achieve excellence. Companies that put profit first most frequently fail to achieve their targets. Interesting!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Steven Van Belleghem
Steven Van Belleghem is inspirator at B-Conversational. He is an inspirator, a coach and gives strategic advice to help companies better understand the world of conversations, social media and digital marketing. In 2010, he published his first book The Conversation Manager, which became a management literature bestseller and was awarded with the Marketing Literature Prize. In 2012, The Conversation Company was published. Steven is also part time Marketing Professor at the Vlerick Management School. He is a former managing partner of the innovative research agency InSites Consulting.


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