Thinking Managers

Robert Heller of wonders why so few organisations have become truly customer-centric.

Listening is the Key to Excellent Customer Service

There is only one strategy: customer strategy. Product and product-driven strategies are dead – in theory, at least (although in practice they might not have died altogether). Not many businesses, even in retail, let alone sectors further removed from customers, have reinvented themselves to the point of achieving a truly customer-centric business system. This sort of system, in theory, starts with the customer, reworks all processes back from the customer, and aims them towards the achievement of excellence as seen through the customer's eyes.

The purpose of such a system is to obtain a clear understanding of customers so you can give them what they want; how, where and when they want it; at a profitable price that they are willing to pay.

You won't make up for failures on these key strategic elements with marketing. The technology has to support the service, and the product support has to support the promise, but quality must also support the 'customer value proposition', and 'human resources' policies must support the customer focus: i.e., if you want happy customers, get contented staff first. Incremental improvement, moreover, is not sufficient, and neither are excellent systems. You have to serve all three strategic elements above, and not with lip service – which is usually what happens. 'The customer is king' is a noble slogan, used by senior managers in every industry – noble and true in theory, but an ignoble lie in the majority of companies.

Customers are sometimes referred to by executives as though they are some strange and separate breed, described with demeaning phrases like 'punters'. The executives are equally insensitive to their own staff, who are the most important customers of all. These customers are dependent on top management's service for sensible strategic direction, the effective operation of efficient systems, and proactive treatment as humans, rather than 'human resources'.

There is hard statistical evidence establishing a clear link between three types of satisfaction: employee, customer and shareholder. If you satisfy the first then the customers love you more: investors follow suit as sales and profits duly rise. However, many managers, even retailers, whose customers are highly visible, are out of touch with the shop floor. Their absurdities are hatched behind closed doors.

They are impervious to suggestions and criticisms (often powerful) from lower staff, and to the potential huge contribution of middle managers, so they are hardly likely to listen to the customers who are supposed to be like royalty.

Andy Grove, former chairman of Intel, emphasises that internal and external customer complaints are 'a very important source of information'. That's true, and how CEOs answer personally addressed complaints (and whether they do at all) speaks volumes.

Anonymous leaders who delegate customer care to underlings, and never check their performance, are themselves infected by systemic diseases for which only they hold the cure.

That Catch 22 situation is everybody's problem. It can only be solved by really 'giving them what they want', which means finding out what the customer wants in two ways: inspired imagination, which anticipates changing demand for goods and services; and simply 'listening' to the customers. No inspiration is required for this. However, customer perceptions are the essential guide to setting and meeting quality standards and achieving excellence.

About the author
Robert Heller is one of the world’s best selling authors on business management.

  Robert Heller