Spend a few hours picking the brain of virtually any senior executive today and I can almost guarantee two of the topics that will come up: simplification and customer focus. What you are far less likely to hear, however, is the inherent synchronicity linking these two concepts.
To most executives, simplification is specific to an internal activity practiced by a project team. Conversely, customer focus is deemed an externally focused activity and usually the domain of marketing or sales. Why the missing link between these two all-important practices? From my experience, it’s usually a reflection of the little time senior executives spend with their customers and, by extension, the value they put on such efforts.
The point being, this is a significant area of value creation that most companies are ignoring.
Ask most customers or suppliers for their perception of your company, for their insights into how easy you are to engage or to do business with, and the insights you receive will invariably be more useful and actionable than any internal assessment or outside consulting report – and at a fraction of the cost.
Time is Indeed Money
Which begs the question why more executives don’t engage in such pursuits. The simple answer, as you might imagine, is time – that commodity particularly precious to senior executives. The idea of surrendering a healthy piece of a day’s calendar to customer discussions is anathema to most executives, mostly because they simply don’t recognize the value.
But value there is, and plenty of it for the executive with strong listening skills and a humble disposition. Remember, above all others, your customers have a vested interest in your own operational outcomes. After all, it is your customers who pay for your corporate complexities and inefficiencies, not to mention the costs associated with those ‘state of the firm’ consulting reports.
Our recommendation: Executives genuinely interested in customer focus and simplification should spend at least one day a week in the field with customers. They should ensure their teams do much the same. The sales director already knows the turf, but managers from Finance, IT, and HR should engage your customers as well. Trust us when we tell you this process will change the tone and even the vocabulary of your internal – and ultimately, external – conversations. And it will deliver crysal-clear clarity into what your customers deem of value (along with an understanding of what they don’t want).
Creating the Connection
This process is not easy – at least not initially. It requires skill, determination, and resilience. At first blush, freeing up one day per week will seem impossible. But ask yourself this: is it really all that unreasonable for the leadership of a customer-centric business to spend 20% of their time with their customers? Particularly when such a wealth of actionable information awaits?
Nevertheless, excuses to such practices abound. If an executive spends time with customers, he’ll return to the office with a long list of new action items. Or, if all the department managers follow suit, we’ll find ourselves in a state of chaos.
And to some degree, these concerns are not without merit. Our experience, for example, is that an executive who returns to the office with a laundry list of To Do items is usually prone to such practices anyway. At least in this instance, however, those action items will be at the behest of actual customers.
Similarly, if customer feedback leads to internal chaos, this is a clear indication you do not have a clear strategy and your position in the marketplace may not be as clear as you thought. Or perhaps it tells you your customer segmentation is flawed. But again, these are helpful insights to be welcomed and acted upon.
Our experience, however, is that far from dispatching the executive(s) with a long list of new action items, customers usually ask for a greater focus on what they most need, as well as a reduction in the internal initiatives that don’t drive customer value.
Real Results that Matter
Once you’ve freed up the time and made the commitment to customer visits, ensure you are visiting the right customers and asking the difficult questions. It may sound facile, but it’s important to remember that good relationships take time, and only by building trust will you receive the input you most need – input you can act on to increase value.
Successfully executed, you’ll be amazed just how quickly you can identify your company’s most pressing issues, and become a simpler, more customer-focused organization. These results will resonate across your organization and positively impact other customer relationships as well.
Our experience is that such practices have added measurable dollars to the bottom line, reduced costs by 20 percent or more through the reduction of undervalued activities, and led to stronger customer confidence thanks to top-to-top relationships.
Footnote: I shared this article with some colleagues from businesses large and small, and their feedback was telling. Those working for larger companies were equal parts intrigued and challenged, while the reaction from those inside smaller businesses was, quite simply, ‘Duh.’ They felt I was stating the obvious – a business truism they took for granted. This admixture of responses demonstrates not only a lack of understanding that often exists between large and small businesses, but explains the tensions that can arise when they work together.
by John Carey