Astute Planning, Flawless Execution,
Delighted Customers

Issue #146

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Introduction
In trying economic times, it is more important than ever to marshal all your resources to ensure that your customers remain loyal. In this edition of our newsletter, we share the importance of, and practical approaches for, the CFO listening to the voice of the customer and how the finance team can have a direct impact on customer loyalty. So, in addition to looking internally at departmental costs, engage the Finance team to improve the customers' perception of and experience with your firm.

To the CFO: Listen to the Voice of the Customer
by Tim Althof

The Opportunity

It is not always a natural act for the CFO to have direct contact with customers except perhaps as part of negotiations or contract discussions. Sometimes it's just not a priority in the CFO's packed schedule, and sometimes it's simply that customer contact is viewed solely as the purview of sales and customer service. In this environment, customer satisfaction feedback reaching Finance is indirect at best. Many issues can be lost in translation or their implications not fully appreciated.

I believe that this gap of customer contact with the CFO represents one of the most significant lost opportunities for the company. Not only does Finance directly impact the relationship with the customer through policies such as credit limits, but it also defines the process for moving basic transactions such as invoicing. The customer interface as defined in Finance ultimately either enhances the relationship or frustrates it. When the CFO listens directly to the voice of the customer, it opens an opportunity to reshape policy and set in motion improvements in business processes and systems that enhance customer experience and satisfaction.

If the CFO gets direct answers from customers to the following kinds of questions, he/she can directly impact the quality of customer relationships:

  • Could there be more appropriate and useful invoice terms and financing alternatives?

  • Is the offer creating an obstacle to the purchasing decision? For example, is a capital purchase less desirable to the customer than, say, a subscription service?

  • Are accounting-related issues such as revenue recognition having unintended consequences for the customer?

  • Is the sale transaction documentation clear, understandable, and easy to process?

  • Is technology being used to advantage when interfacing with the customer's ordering and payment process?

  • Are past-due payments the result of cash flow problems, or do they really represent claims and disputes?

  • Are the people in credit and collections communicating constructively and improving the relationship, or are they increasing conflict and frustration?

  • Are onerous and possibly inconsequential contract reviews and multiple revisions slowing down the deal process?

  • Is the sales compensation system potentially causing dysfunctional activities? For example, are deals consistently being pushed to the end of the quarter and being forced by last-minute discounts?

In most circumstances, it is not even necessary to ask the customer about specific types of concerns. In a constructive and open meeting, the burning issues impacting the customer will roll out almost automatically. And they are often significant.

The Process

The critical first step for the CFO is to simply get customer meetings on the calendar. This is easy when you can team up with a sales force or distributors who can set up meetings; it's harder, but not impossible, when the company has many small customers possibly using a direct marketing or telesales business model. However, even if a customer represents a small percentage of sales, he/she will very often reflect the views and experiences of many other customers. It will generally be clear that the messages repeat from one meeting to the next, forming a consistent picture. The information you get from these sessions can be exceedingly valuable.

I would like to suggest a general framework for meeting customers that not only gets the most information, but sets a constructive tone. Since CFOs don't regularly show up on a customer's doorstep, there is a striking opportunity to have a positive impact. The CFO's presence alone sends a huge message to the customer that the company values its business.

Here are some suggestions for making the most of the CFO/customer meeting:

  • Go in with a solid understanding of the customer's business and history, including level of purchases from your firm, payment record, receivable aging, and any known issues or complaints they have raised in the past.

  • Explain that you are there because the company values the relationship. You, as CFO, want to establish a solid contact and be of help if you can.

  • Consider whether your role puts you in a position to help the customer locate new business opportunities.

  • Explore whether your group could be buying the customer's products and services in order to further cement the relationship.

  • Openly ask if there are any problems or issues from the customer's perspective.

  • Listen sincerely and carefully and get as many specifics as you can. Take any feedback without explaining or trying to defend the situation.

  • Thank the customer for honesty and commit to following up on any issues. Then follow through.

  • If necessary, commit to a follow-up meeting with the customer's staff to resolve issues in depth.

Action

It is inconceivable that a series of CFO and customer meetings ---especially if this is a new form of contact--- will not result in key insights into the way customers perceive your company. These insights need to lead to actions which will improve the process and consequently the customer experience. Issues that are impediments to great customer relationships should be carefully explored, cost/benefits determined, remediation plans developed, and improvements made.

Clearly, investments in improving the customer experience need to be weighed against other priorities. But initiatives which can lead to increased revenue need serious consideration and should get a high priority. Unless the company is on a track to attract and retain customers, all other internal process investments are questionable. Listening to the voice of the customer is key to improving both the top and bottom lines, and the CFO is in a unique position to capitalize on this opportunity.

 

Contents

+ Introduction

+ To the CFO: Listen to the Voice of the Customer


 


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