Bringing True Customer Focus in to Reality

In spite of all the catchy slogans and corporate pledges, customer service levels of major corporations have only slightly improved in the last few years.

Customer focus graphSome observers maintain that they haven’t moved at all, or have even worsened. Virtually all organisations today claim that they’re in the business of serving customers—but closer inspection makes clear that their focus remains on serving themselves.

Most businesses are consumed by task-focus; all reference to “customer service improvement” is superficial, and typically involves introducing training programs whose primary function is to legislate behavior change among employees—what workers derisively refer to as “smile training.”

Most senior managers are not even acquainted with what a customer-focused culture even looks like, and are not ready to turn their own business culture inside out in order to cultivate such a focus.

By comparison, those organisations that make customer delight a core element—or even the main driver—of their strategic focus will have been through massive cultural transformation to ensure that at the customer interface, their people are empowered, equipped, and motivated to do whatever they must to enhance the total customer experience.

The key elements in this kind of cultural transformation are alignment of shared goals, company values, systems and processes, and organisational structure. The dual objective of this kind of cultural alignment is organisational effectiveness (doing the right things) and efficiency (doing the right things right.)

A somewhat different philosophy is summarized on a colleague’s coffee mug: Drink coffee, do stupid things with more energy and faster. In the face of cultural misalignment, drinking more coffee may help mask the reality that little of what you do will be adding much value from the customer’s perspective.

People are at the heart of any cultural transformation. Whilst a company’s success clearly depends upon its people, their collective power stems, in part, from the organisation’s ability to point them in a common direction—a shared “sense of purpose”—and its ability to eliminate obstacles and impediments to progress. When the organisation’s workforce and culture are aligned with its strategic focus, people become a major source of sustainable competitive advantage.

In an effective organisational culture, systems and processes should follow, serve, and support—rather than control, direct, and dictate. Central to cultural alignment is the question, “For whose convenience is this system or process designed?” The Organisation’s structure, as well as its systems and processes, provide a clear indication of management’s true values (regardless how they may be described in Annual Reports).

Arguments rage about the extent to which operational excellence drives down costs, or whether customers any longer even have a requirement for greater levels of service excellence. Studies have shown that between 20-40 percent of the operating costs for most North American organisations are consumed by poor quality.

This includes redoing work, processing warranty claims, handling disgruntled customers or employees, scrapping defective materials…in other words, fixing things that weren’t done right the first time.

The principle of alignment embraces the principle of getting things right first time and doing only those things that add value for the customer, and thus by definition, drive down the costs of doing business.

Although operational excellence can drive down cost, many cost-focused organisations are not close enough to their customers to know that despite lower costs, their products or services are missing the mark. It means not only are great revenue opportunities lost, but also millions of dollars are wasted delivering or supporting products or services that customers no longer perceive as useful or relevant.

A large (and growing) number of executives and managers now recognize that the quality of their future will be a direct reflection of the quality of the products and services their organization delivers.

Developing and implementing cultural transformation is one the hardest tasks that any organisation can undertake. When it comes to implementation there are hundreds of ways to do it wrong: omit the senior executives from the planning, disseminate a drab mission statement, neglect the customer during the change process, mandate data collection but not data analysis, keep employees in the dark about what’s happening etc. Only through careful and thoughtful planning can these hazards be avoided.

About the Author

Andrew Wallbridge and Paul Levesque are co-Directors of UK-based AndrewsLevesque. Paul Levesque is the author of several books, including The Wow Factory, Breakaway Planning and Customer Focus Made Easy.

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