Perfecting Service Management

Issue #63

Tuesday, February 2, 2005

The Customer is NOT Always Right
by Kurt Jensen

Somewhere in the annals of time, the phrase "the customer is always right" was coined and forever etched into our service delivery minds. These five words cause immeasurable efforts in trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, lead to a 'yes' culture, and result in decisions based on "Group Think," defined by at least one online Organizational Behavior Glossary as "The capacity for group pressure to damage the mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment of decision-making groups."

Not Seeking to be Right

During a recent client meeting, after several minutes of back-and-forth debate over prioritization and approach to a project, the client looked at me with a smile and said, "Now I know you are delivering value I can get anyone to simply shake their head in agreement." In this discussion, even while the customer had the final say, the atmosphere of trust, credibility and open-mindedness dominated and produced mutually agreed upon actionable decisions. While the client did not openly say it, she was not seeking to be "right", although it certainly would have been easier to shake a head in agreement. Instead, a healthy discussion of the various alternatives led to a project plan everyone was comfortable with.

Managing the Line

Regardless of the customer setting, whether an internal department or an external client, one distinct line to manage is disagreement under the guise of delivering value. Do not disagree for the sake of disagreeing, thinking you are delivering value. Some examples of crossing this line would be automatically debating direction, using words like "but" or "should," and the extended analysis of a decision. Simply put, don't do it. Healthy conversation or even debate is fine; automatic disagreement or debate is a waste of time.

Questions to Ask Yourself

There are a few essential questions to ask when participating in customer interactions.

  1. Is your customer in a problem-solving frame of mind?
  2. Does your customer simply need to be heard?
  3. Is your customer providing direction vs. asking?

Determining the nature of the discussion requires close listening and clarifying questions.

Delivering value to customers certainly is essential to maintaining their loyalty. However, delivering value often requires tactfully conversing with the customer to determine alternatives to achieving the desired result and ultimately builds a better and longer lasting relationship. Challenge your customers to think even harder about themselves and what they are doing they'll be glad you did.

Becoming Customer Centric - Involve the Customer
by Craig Bailey

Our series on leveraging the Voice of the Customer as a key element to becoming customer centric continues with an overview of two approaches to involving the customer in your action planning. In prior editions, we provided an overview of approaches for obtaining customer input and perception. The "next level" of the VoC process is direct customer "involvement." This step confirms that customer perceptions are being accurately interpreted by your firm and provides an opportunity to validate future plans with the customer prior to execution. Two common approaches to achieving direct customer involvement include establishing Focus Groups and a Customer Board of Advisors.

Focus Group(s) This is a qualitative approach in which a group of participants (approximately 10) of common demographics, attitudes, or purchase patterns are led through a discussion on a particular topic. This could involve:

  • Obtaining additional insight on what you have perceived from your firm's customer pulsing activities
  • Reviewing action-plans that result from customer input to validate that they will achieve the anticipated impact in the eyes of the customer
  • Obtaining detailed requirements directly from the customer on new product/service feature/functions
  • Discussing the nature of the customers' use, benefits, drawbacks, suggestions for improvements and most effective use (short-cuts, workarounds, helpful hints, etc.) of your firm's products/services

As you prepare for the focus group, it will be important to consider the profile (face-of-the-customer) of those you invite. This will be based on the nature of the topics to be covered. If you are covering items related to the overall value proposition and what it would take for a customer to remain a customer for the long-term, you will want to involve decision-makers. If you will be discussing a specific set of features/functions with regard to your product/service, then you will want to invite end-users. For "B2C" firms, you will find that they (decision-maker and end-user) are often the same person.

While the focus group(s) you establish may involve a series of discussions, you will, at a minimum, want to hold an initial session (to actively engage the customer in dialog) and a follow-up session that closes the loop with regard to the actions you are taking based on their input.

Customer Board of Advisors This activity involves facilitation of periodic meetings with a select number of senior executives from your firm's customer base. To be clear, this involves engaging customers (to a great degree) into your firm's "inner-circle." As such, care must be given in choosing the customers that you invite to this level of involvement. Attributes to consider when determining the customers to involve in this process include:

  • Strategic importance to your firm
  • Level of complexity and/or sophistication in the use of your firm's products/services. Representation from customers at each end of the spectrum can be effective.
  • Diversity of industries represented

In addition to covering many of the same topics (although at a higher-level) as in the focus groups, it will be beneficial to provide this customer forum with an update on your firm's strategic direction, financial situation and the market challenges and opportunities that you are facing and addressing. You may be amazed at the level of interest that this strategic group of customers has in the success of your firm. That is, they will actively engage with you, offering approaches that you might consider in addressing some of your most pressing challenges and opportunities.

The nature of discussions, feedback received and perspective obtained from the Customer Board of Advisors will typically be strategic in nature. This is beneficial to your VoC activities as it helps to balance out aspects of customer input that may be more tactical in nature.

Finally, keys to success for involving the customer in the forums outlined above include:

  • Leveraging a trained / objective moderator to ensure that open/frank communications take place, and that discussions remain on track.
  • Clearly setting goals, objectives, expectations and ground-rules for each session.
  • Establishing confidentiality This includes confidentiality between the host and individual customer firms, and between the individual customer firms.
  • Cross-functional participation from your firm This ensures that multiple facets of your firm hear, first-hand, what the customer is saying and can hold interactive dialog with the customer for clarity. Areas of your firm to consider include: Marketing, Product Management, Engineering/Development, Sales/Account Management, Professional Services, Training/Education, Service/Support and Accounting/Finance/Billing.

In closing, involving the customer in your action-planning and continuous improvement efforts demonstrates to the customer that they, and their input, are important and ensures that the plans you initiate are in alignment with customer needs.

In the next edition, we will begin discussing what to do with the information obtained in the prior steps of the Voice-of-the-Customer process. If you'd like to review an outline of the complete VoC program feel free to download the presentation recently delivered to PDMA's VoC conference.

View previous articles in this series.

+ The Customer is NOT Always Right
+ Becoming Customer Centric
+ In The News
+ Recommended Reading

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In The News
CCI's Extended Network Associate Harry Wright Heermans, Ph.D. is one of 5 start-up executives profiled in the CRM Magazine article CRM is GO!. The article focuses on the importance of CRM even for companies just starting out, highlighting 5 start-up companies and their early implementation of CRM.

For Heermans, implementing CRM in the early stages allowed his company (Providus) to develop business processes to complement the CRM product, rather than having to re-engineer processes to fit the tool. On the importance and value of CRM, Heermans says: "We really have to be driven by what customers are telling us, and in that regard we need all of the different channels and touch points feeding back to the folks designing the product."


Recommended Reading
This week's recommended reading, from CRM Magazine, complements our Voice of the Customer series with a discussion of Customer Advisory Boards. In his article Listening to Customers Requires More than Ears, Bill Capraro emphasizes the importance of these customer boards as a way of better understanding what customers really want, and of involving customers more in what you do.

VoC Presentation Available
for Download

Material from Craig Bailey's presentation at the 7th Annual Voice of the Customer Conference in San Francisco is available on the Customer Centricity website. Click here to download the presentation.


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