The journey to a high performance organization begins with the CEO and the senior leadership team creating an environment that yields superior results and customer experience. The journey begins and ends with the customer.
When I arrived in San Francisco in 1979 to join the Corporate Staff at Transamerica Corporation, I was walking down Montgomery Street on my first day of work when I saw a large cement truck with the slogan “Find a need and fill it” stenciled on its rotating drum.
So simple yet so profound! I often reflect on this advice when I start working for a new client. It is a simple principle. The success of any business ultimately depends on providing products and services that fill important needs for customers. Yet in my experience, it frequently gets lost in many businesses.
I have had the good fortune to conduct seminars for executives around the world. I frequently start a seminar by asking the participants the question: “What business are you in?” The answers are: the software business, the medical devices business, the biotech business, etc. The answers are almost always stated in terms of the product or service their company’s produce. Perhaps one time out of one hundred, an executive will say: “I am in the business of helping my customers do X”.
My consulting experience seems to fall into two clusters. In the first cluster are companies that have gotten themselves into trouble and are trying to bring themselves back, usually with the help of a new CEO. The second cluster consists of businesses that are successful and trying to take their performance to a higher level. In both cases, we start with the customer.
First we review the data and analysis the client has with respect to how its customers are experiencing the company. If needed, we extend the assessment through interviews, focus groups and survey questionnaires with a representative sample of customers, we try to develop an accurate picture of the experience the customer is having with the client company and its key competitors.
Customer experience is the perception that customers have of what it is like to do business with an organization. This perception is built up out of the transactions that the people in customer organizations have with the Company. These interactions include people’s direct experiences with the Company’s products and services; interactions with sales and service representatives; communications interactions through internet, telephone, fax and e-mail; and, in the case of business customers, visits to the customers from the Company’s executives and other personnel.
An Example of Customer Experience Gone Bad
One day, I received a telephone call from the CEO of a computer software company. This company provided software and services to large and mid-sized companies. The CEO was concerned that his company was beginning to lose sales and customers to competitors and that its customer service ratings had fallen into the low 40 point range against an industry average of 68 points.
I put a team together to tackle this situation. We conducted a customer experience assessment. Our interviews, focus groups and surveys revealed a startling view of the customer experience with our client’s business:
- The latest release of the product was of poor quality. It did not work properly. It contained many bugs, which required many hours of customer time to isolate and correct. Until it was fixed, it disabled key data center functions, which created significant risks for customers.
- Prior to the current release, our client’s software was considered reliable but was difficult to install and run properly in the customer’s complex system environments consisting of many brands of hardware and software.
- Our client’s professional services were inadequate. Many customers said that the personnel who came to their sites were not capable of helping them effectively solve problems of installation and operation.
- Customers reported high turnover in our client’s service organization, which resulted in frequent changes in the people servicing their accounts. In many instances, customers felt like they were a training ground for our client’s personnel.
- Customers typically ran our client’s applications on nights and weekends. They routinely experienced situations in which they would call in for technical support only to find that the highly experienced personnel required to solve their problem had gone home. Customers were frustrated by having to wait from several hours to one, or more days until the needed help became available.
- The Chief Information Officers of customers reported that our client’s executives infrequently visited them and that when they were visited it was almost always a sales call rather than a sincere attempt to understand and help with the CIO’s issues and concerns.
- Customer CIO’s were considering changing to one of our client’s competitors. One CIO picked up a file folder off his desk and showed me a proposal from my client’s competitor which he was seriously considering.
What would you do if this was the picture of customer experience with your company?
This bleak picture of customer experience was presented to our client’s executive team. They were at first somewhat disheartened and resistant. After we showed them a video edited from the customer focus groups we conducted, the gravity of the situation sunk in, they began to focus on solutions.
Based on our experience with similar situations and the results of customer research, which indicates that an effective response to serious problems can create a strong and positive customer experience, we saw the situation as great opportunity for our client to create a response to the situation that would differentiate them from their competitors.
We worked with our client to design and implement a program to address the situation. The client focused on creating a superior experience for its customers. The program involved the senior leadership of the organization and managers and employees from throughout the Company.
We helped our client to:
- Look at all aspects of its business from a customer point of view,
- Identify opportunities to improve customer experience,
- Design and implement action programs to improve customer experience,
- Develop and implement a targeted customer visit program by our client’s top executives, which focused on building relationships and understanding the business needs of customers’ Chief Information Officers.
Within twelve months of the initiation of the program, the Company’s products were again selling well, its customers had ceased to think about changing to competitors’ products, and its external customer survey score had improved by more than 35 points and passed the industry average.
Competing on Customer Experience
The case described above is an illustration of the value of focusing on customer experience as a basis of competition. In my work with hundreds of companies, I have found consistently that looking carefully at the experience of customers results in significant opportunities to differentiate your business from your competitors. If your customer experience is not as good as your competitors, you will eventually lose customers and sales. If you can create a customer experience superior to that of your competitors, you will create a competitive advantage.
One of the first tasks of the leader seeking to build a high performance organization is to get herself and the senior management team grounded in the customer experiences of their own and their competitors’ customers.
Building and sustaining a competitive advantage is like consistently playing at the championship level in team sports. One of the key attributes of teams like the New England Patriots and the Golden State Warriors is that they have the talent necessary to play at that level. They have the right people!
© Copyright 2017, A. Lad Burgin, Ph.D. All rights reserved.