Stop lying — your client does not come first
Just because you say so, does not make it so
We have seen it many times. “Our mission is to serve our clients exceptionally well” on a company’s website. “Client focus” as the #1 value in their employee’s booklet. A beautiful client-service manifesto on a large poster on the CEO’s office wall, which every manager signed during the last corporate retreat. And yet, despite good intentions and corporate communications and culture change projects, employees just don’t feel it is true, don’t behave as if it was true… There are always other concerns and priorities more important than the client.
While a minority of these are intentionally deceitful facades, most often you have well-intentioned leaders that recognize a problem, understand the importance and business advantage of a client-comes-first mindset, want to implement it across the organization, and can’t seem to be able to do it. They look at Amazon’s customer obsession, want to reproduce it, put their HR teams to task, and get disappointed when the new mottos and internal communications fail to make a meaningful difference. Or worse, declare “mission accomplished” after some large corporate event and fail to even realize that nothing has changed.
Why is it so difficult to implement something so obviously great, that works wonderfully well in so many other companies? In my experience, after you eliminate all obvious culprits — bad leadership, command-and-control hierarchies, bureaucratic culture, persistent project mismanagement — a big reason still tends to go unnoticed:
If your focus is on sales, it is not on clients
A client-comes-first mindset may be offensive to a company’s culture, if they have historically focused on individual sales. This can be even more critical in successful companies. While intellectually leaders recognize that clients are critical, on an instinctive level they may actually be rejecting this premise if it could increase the likelihood of losing a sale.
This is a difficult problem to avoid — and you could consider whether you really want to avoid it. Companies can be very successful focusing strictly on individual sales, particularly when clients are difficult to identify, don’t return very often, or don’t influence other clients.
However, while sales are transactions, clients are relationships. If you have easily-identifiable recurring clients that influence others, then keeping a sales-focused mindset is just asking for a client-focused competitor to take over your market share — as many of Amazon’s and Apple’s competitors have realized over the years.
And yet, you can’t just look at highly successful companies that built themselves with customer obsession on their very DNA and hope to replicate it with just talk. You need to walk the talk and show everyone you mean action.
For clients to come first, you need real change
If you truly want to change your organization from a transaction-oriented to a relationship-oriented mindset, you should aim to transform at least six key elements:
- Communication — you’re probably already doing this, so keep going! The mottos, e-mails, corporate values do make clear that the mindset is shifting. Communication is not sufficient, but is an important foundation.
- Metrics — numbers make changes easy to perceive. NPS is a good client satisfaction indicator with the key advantage of being used by a large number of companies, enabling easy comparative benchmarks. But you should try and complement it with Customer Lifetime Value, which makes crystal-clear the financial consequences of developing good or bad client relationships.
- Incentives — use them as an explicit indicator to employees that they should care about this shift, like some companies that make NPS or CLTV mandatory in every employee’s performance metrics. But be careful with the A in SMART — the goals must be attainable by those assigned, meaning client-facing employees should have metrics much more granular and relevant e.g. NPS within their store, from clients they actually serviced etc.
- Strategy — here we reach less traveled waters. Many companies have the right communication, a few of them even develop the right metrics and incentives, but rarely do they make an explicit connection between client focus and their strategy. And no, a tautological “our strategy is to focus on our clients” does not count. Jeff Bezos built Amazon’s strategy directly connected to their customer focus: clients will always want lower prices, faster delivery and better assortment, so that’s their strategy. Just think about it: what will your core clients always want? Is that what your strategy is trying to deliver?
- Org chart — as a mentor of mine once said, “strategy is ambition but org chart is destiny”. And here, to a majority of enterprises, Amazon and Apple are bad examples: they were already built from the ground up with customer obsession in their very DNA. If we can’t have visionary client-focused founder-CEOs, we should at least have a strong and highly visible client-focused executive that can challenge the Finance Officer or Operations Officer or Commercial Officer when the focus shifts back to sales and transactions. A Chief Client Officer responsible for client satisfaction and experience and lifetime value, if you will. Instead, very often companies use “clients should be everyone’s concern” as an excuse and keep sales and marketing free and unchallenged on one side, fulfillment and complaints as cost centers on another side, billings and collections somewhere else… Employees do notice when there is no strong client representative in the Executive Board, and act accordingly in the lower decks.
- Culture — if the five elements above are well-implemented, a client-oriented culture is very likely to happen. Just don’t think of culture change as a panacea or something you can force when the foundations are not in order. Believing you can become client-focused (or innovation-focused, or efficiency-focused) by culture change alone is going to waste a lot of effort and energy you could be applying somewhere else.
What do you think? Do you agree, disagree or something in between? Have you had similar experiences trying to become more client-focused, or have you learned different lessons? Let’s comment and discuss!
Cheers, and until next time,