Why Customer Efforts Fail – Signs to Look for and Avoid

Jeanne Bliss

If you have tried repeatedly to get a focus on customers, customer loyalty and customer profitability inside your organization with less than stellar results, you’re far from alone.

Most companies jump in without evaluating how the organization works together, whether the CEO is truly committed and if the patience exists for the long road ahead. These are the key issues that usually get in the way of making progress. See if you recognize any of them in your organization.

CEO’s aren’t clear about where they want to take the company for customers.

When the CEO says ‘go focus on the customer,’ every one takes it differently. People want to salute the flag – they just don’t know exactly what that means. The shot gets fired into the air and a proliferation of tactics, vendor proposals and actions get going. But they often don’t aggregate up to something meaningful for customers.

CEOs with customer passion have a ‘gut’ about how they want to show up to customers. It’s woven into how they give directives and inspire people and lead them directionally on where to take the company. When proposals are made, they have an inner compass which forces proposals to examine customer impact and whether factions of the organization are working together on a solution. They challenge how new ideas contribute to the realization of an end state for customers which they have thought deeply about. Their clarity is palpable and understandable and they have found a way to communicate it to the organization – and the organization ‘gets’ it.

The ‘commitment’ doesn’t frame and modify actions for leaders and the organization.

What we have now is a frenzied awareness of a problem that often leads to an even more frenzied approach to a “solution.” These are the questions I always want to know from CEO’s who say they’re committed to the customer mission.

a. Are you clear in your mind about what you want to accomplish?
b. Do you understand the sweeping scope of the work?
c. Will you develop the new skills required for the company to thrive with customers?
d. Are you willing to commit company time and resources to make this happen?
e. As the CEO, do you sign up to be a true partner?
f. Will you insist on corporate patience?
g. Are you ready to push hard for strategic customer metrics?
h. Do you have the guts to drive reliability in company operations?
i. Do you have the focus to define the differentiated value you want to deliver to customers?

The ‘customer’ still isn’t elevated as the major asset of the corporation.

Organic customer growth drives long-term profitability. So why isn’t it as important to CEOs as quarterly sales goals? Understanding the state of customer relationships and even something as simple as customer counts still pale in comparison to quarterly sales goals in the rate at which they are understood, managed and held up as a success factor of the business. No one knows the goal-line for customers. Most CEOs haven’t told their company what it is.

Customer issues still aren’t making it as a priority in the company or to the boardroom level. According to a November 2004 Harvard Business Review article entitled Bringing Customers into the Boardroom, customer management issues being kicked upstairs are on the decline. Among the large U.S. companies surveyed for that article, over a third of them said that their boards spent less than ten percent of their time on customer-related or marketing issues.

The metrics and motivation don’t line up with the commitment.

CEOs say they’re committed to customers but don’t make any modifications for how success is defined and what people are compensated and rewarded for. Or if modifications are made, it’s at such a high level such as attaching bonus to customer satisfaction survey score increases – that people don’t really know how to change their behavior. The metrics aren’t attached down to relevant operational changes. There are even times that satisfaction score goals can be negotiated out of relevance if a high sales performer doesn’t make the grade on customer satisfaction but hit the ball out of park bringing in new business. Tilt. The company takes a queue from where people are rewarded and what the company really cares about and will act accordingly.

There is inconsistency for driving accountability.

Companies who do this right spend the time to lay out what the new metrics are down to the operational level. And they establish meaningful forums and methods to hold people accountable. The ‘customer stuff’ is not wedged into an over-crowded meeting agenda and potentially pushed completely off when time falls short. The work is done to clearly identify how the different sections of the customer experience are accountable by individual areas and through collaboration. And accountability is clearly attached to each.

It’s not natural for the company to work together.

It’s still not natural to work horizontally across the silos. Each faction of the company continues to establish their own plans, budgets and goals. The challenge of this work is that it cuts across the entire organization and orchestrating that new behavior isn’t often factored in. This won’t happen naturally and the CEO must be a major player in a) identifying that this new skill is necessary, b) finding someone to bring the pieces together to work on common efforts, and c) reinforce through accountability, metrics and motivation that these are the necessary behaviors in the new customer-
focused world.

Fleeting corporate patience exists to drive sustainable change.

This work is not for the mild-hearted or quarterly inclined. Becoming a ‘customer’ company is a multi-year endeavor. CEOs can’t bail in the first year because the results don’t come as simply and cleanly as seeing response rates on a marketing campaign, tracking sales goals, or the number of page views on your Web site. The CEO must have the belief and commitment that this is the right course. The company must hear that the company ticker on proclaiming something a success or failure has a much longer timeline here. When things seem to waver (and they will), people will need to hear that the corporate patience exists to stay the course.

We have been programmed to worry about lack of results in increments of quarters, and so people will be anxious unless timelines and expectations for results are reset. If the CEO doesn’t personally commit to corporate patience, people will see right through it. They’ll abandon efforts when their performance rating is at risk for staying focused on the “customer stuff” that’s not yielding results quickly enough for the impatient corporate machine.

There is a lack of understanding and commitment to the scale of work required.

Relegating this work as a marketing project or customer service goal is not enough. For the customer work to take-hold it must be seen for what it is and understood for the challenge that it will be to the ‘normal’ workings of the corporate machine. The CEO needs to be realistic about what accomplishments are requested and support it accordingly. I’ve been in more situations than I care to remember where the ‘commitment’ was there but not much more. People will see right through this and the corporate ‘nay-Sayers’ will be quick to point out that this is yet one more empty promise about customers. CEOs on a realistic path for this work recognize its scale and understand that many people may need to be assembled to bring about
the level of wholesale change required.

About the Author

Jeanne Bliss is the founder of CustomerBLISS consulting and coaching company helping corporations connect their efforts to yield improved customer growth. She is a world-wide speaker on the subject. Jeanne spent twenty-five years at Lands’ End, Microsoft, Allstate, Coldwell Banker, and Mazda corporations as the leader for driving customer focus and customer growth.


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