In the quest to
maintain your customers' confidence in your firm, are you relying solely
on regulatory mandates and controls? While they have their place, there
is more to consider. In this article, Tim Althof shares valuable insight
on how your company's core values must exude integrity and customer
Integrity and the Customer Relationship
Since Sarbanes-Oxley got really rolling, the business world has been
awash with compliance activities. Our daily language is filled with
terminology like key controls, certifications, whistleblowers and
material weaknesses. Our business practices are now subject to ongoing
assessments. These compliance processes at a granular level have a
legitimate place in most organizations, especially when they are based
on an intelligent risk assessment and employ a streamlined, manageable
design. But in the midst of all this compliance activity, I believe
there can be an inherent danger in counting on them too much. The
process of achieving true organizational ethics and integrity needs to
go deeper and further.
A company's core values, which include attitudes about ethics, fair
practices, and honesty, are exhibited one way or another in all the
dealings of the organization. Importantly, they significantly define the
company's relationship with customers. If integrity is authentic and
central to the organization, it helps assure long-term relationships
with customers and, therefore, a high lifetime value. Let me explain why
I think this is true.
As an organization exhibits an identity, it reflects what you could
characterize as a personality or character. That personality is
perceived and experienced by the customer in everyday dealings,
sometimes involving many parts of both organizations. For sure,
customers expect the basics like the right product, good delivery, and
competitive pricing. But the softer "personality" issues and your true
face to the customer often define the quality of the connection and can
literally build or destroy the relationship.
If you think back to your bad experiences with companies in the past
where you have severed ties, what reaction hits you immediately? A lot
can go wrong, but I think there is a high probability that your
experiences will include a significant number of times where the key
issue was a breach of trust. For whatever reason, you were left with a
sense of unfairness, dishonesty, or misrepresentation. And as you know
from your own experiences, when trust is lost the relationship is
For your company's long-term viability, it is essential to continuously
monitor whether your face to the customer depicts impeccable integrity
and honesty or not. In this assessment process, consider whether your
Have great experiences when dealing with your
employees who passionately believe in the company.
Trust you to keep promises and deal fairly with them
in all circumstances.
View the advertising and information they are given as
accurate, reliable and consistent.
Get prompt and thorough corrective action when
mistakes are made.
Perceive that pricing and terms are fair and
Are willing to talk to your prospective customers and
consistently give positive referrals.
Know that they can count on your firm to maintain
privacy and confidentiality.
And if you have doubts about how well you would fare in these, I would
like to stress that any corrective actions can't be superficial.
Integrity is not a training issue; it is a way of life in the
organization that arises from a deeply understood and wholly believed
set of core values. You become a company of integrity when these values
are part of the way the company operates (at all levels, at all times,
I would suggest that there are a number of positive steps a company can
take to grow an ethical organization over time:
When top executives talk to employees about results or
anything else, make sure ethics and honest business dealings are
always part of the discussion.
Make sure management walks the talk. Nothing
undermines credibility like a management team whose behavior is at
odds with the stated values.
Never cut corners, take short cuts or cheat even a
little bit. One unethical act can permeate the entire organization.
Treat employees with respect and let them know they
Watch advertising and promotional offers to make sure
they aren't misleading.
Give high-level attention to major decisions like
price discounts so that deals are fair and consistent across your
Make the quality of product and service a priority,
but when things go wrong deal with them. Proactively work hard to
make the customer whole.
Support the idea of SOX-like controls and don't talk
them down. Understand that checks and balances keep employees out of
harm's way and give the organization credibility.
Cover integrity and control in all reporting and
external communications. Customers and all other stakeholders
continuously watch for a pattern of honesty and openness.
I will wrap up by saying that control systems are here and have their
own purpose and value. But they are not an end in and of themselves. The
core values of an organization will always dictate how the company
operates in every encounter. Show a high-integrity face to your
customers and they will keep coming back. Honest business is, in the
final analysis, good business.
+ Integrity and the Customer Relationship
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