An Interview with Joel Whitman
Recently, we had the good fortune to sit down with Joel
Whitman, Principal at
Consulting Group. We asked him to share some of his
thoughts on the importance of customer service to the overall
positioning for a company.
CC: How important is it for a company to improve the
relationships with its existing customers vs. a focus on creating
new customer relationships?
JW: Everyone will point to the obvious fact that it costs less to
keep a customer happy than it does to find a new one. That being
said, how many companies organize around this principle? An easy
way to check is to follow some of your best customers through
their experience – pre-sales, sales, post-sales, customer support,
crisis response, long-term-proactive support and relationship
building – chances are if the person doing pre-sales never talks
to the person doing long-term support – your company is not
walking the talk.
CC: In today’s business environment, many companies are
being tasked with maintaining or improving customer satisfaction,
while at the same time reducing operating costs. Isn’t this a
JW: It really depends on the type of business you are in. For
example – if you are in some type of service business, chances are
the customer experience is the business. Technology can take you
some of the way there – but at some point you will either have to
reduce the amount of service you provide – or look to other areas
in which to cut costs. Unfortunately in certain cases customer
support is seen as just another line item on the operational
budget. Customers are smart; over time, they will figure out who
really cares about their business.
CC: What is the best way for companies to use customer
service to help meet their revenue goals?
JW: The best way to tie customer service (and customer
satisfaction) to revenue goals is to start way back at the product
and service strategy. When products and services are designed with
customer adoption, use and growth in mind, the ability to up-sell
and cross-sell is a natural part of the customer experience. On
the flip side, if products are developed in isolation from one to
the next, chances are the customer will never be a candidate for
up-selling simply because there is nothing to naturally up-sell.
It’s kind of like being forced to sell airplane parts to people
who have just bought a car -- unnatural.
CC: Why is service so important? What about Sales and
JW: Again, it depends on what you are selling. Do I really care
how helpful the customer service people are who work for the
company which makes my paper towels? Probably not. However, if you
are in a business which has a lot of direct interaction with the
ultimate user, customer service is part of the Product itself.
Being known as a Customer Centric company is part of the message
and value proposition delivered to prospects by sales – It is a
powerful tool to differentiate and stand out from the competition.
CC: What are some of the benefits of linking Sales,
Marketing and Service/Operations?
JW: It’s all about “whole product” development – if you are in a
business which has a lot of direct interaction with the ultimate
user then promoting the product is something which can be done all
throughout the life of the customer. Sales, Marketing, and
Service/Operations are all on the critical path of that customer
relationship. It is imperative that the message, and value
proposition which was sold be the actual benefit received. This
can only be accomplished by taking a holistic view of the product
lifecycle. Therefore, making a linkage between Sales, Marketing
and Service/Operations is imperative.
CC: Many companies have purchased and gone through the
implementation of a CRM system, but realized less than adequate
return-on-investment. What can be done to help companies in this
JW: CRM “flame-outs” have been front page news for quite some
time, mainly because companies do exactly that – flame out. The
failure of these implementations has nothing necessarily to do
with IT incompetence (although, would you allow a first time
surgeon to perform open heart surgery on you?). The common cause
of failure is a lack of understanding within the technology
organizations of how customer relationships are built and selling
is done. Customer Relationship building is a high touch, human
behavior driven activity – CRM software, is just that – software.
Somewhere along the line someone has to internalize all of the
elements and activity which go into to selling and supporting
products which result in happy customers, turning that into a set
of processes which can be implemented by a capable IT organization
using the CRM software. This is precisely where a focused
consulting firm can help: cutting across product development,
marketing, sales and support can mean the difference between an
accurate, useful CRM implementation and just another high ticket
IT project which few use.
CC: You mention a “focused consulting firm.” What would you
look for in a consulting firm to help companies improve the value
they receive from their customer relationships?
JW: First, I would look for a firm that has “lived the life “of
what I am trying to do. There are many firms that will bring in
consultants that have little or no relevant work-experience in a
functional area like customer service and try to use formulas and
theories to solve real-world issues. They end up learning on the
job and the company never fully benefits from the time and money
that they invest trying to get them up to speed. Next, I would
look for whether the firm has a vested interest in selling me
something – especially another IT project. I’ve found that firms
that aren’t trying to sell technology are more open to look at the
complete scope of the issue, including the people, process and
systems, and look for ways of optimizing the balance rather than
jumping to the conclusion that it’s a technology issue. Third, I
would look for the ability to address a number of potential issues
– service strategy, satisfaction measurement, process design, and
training. If the firm can’t follow through on the program they’ve
just help strategize, you’re not going to like the results.
Finally, I would look for the ability to set realistic short and
long term goals for the project. This allows the company to see
benefit from their investment, a key factor in today’s tight
economy. This is also closely tied to the first point because it
takes experience to determine what is do-able.
CC: Is now a good time for companies to invest in their
customer relationships and customer service?
JW: It’s actually a very good time for companies to focus on this.
Many companies are finding customers are not buying as much as
they have been in the past. New customers are harder to come by.
The pressure is on everyone to “make the numbers.” When done
right, companies can not only reduce the overall cost of their
business, but actually differentiate themselves through excellent
customer service. This helps in the current market conditions, but
will also help companies reap the reward when the economic