Insights

Building a Customer Facing Culture

Even from among firms that are best defined by the products of their R&D departments and laboratories, it is increasingly common to hear an executive state the goal of making his or her company one that is customer-facing. That orientation is laudable. The best companies thoroughly understand their customers and fully incorporate customer insights into their plans and priorities. The challenge is implementing that vision. It’s far easier to profess the desire to be a customer-facing company that it is to actually build such a culture.

Research into the best practices of suppliers serving business markets has generated a fascinating roster of success stories and horror stories told by customers about their suppliers. While the actual stories span the spectrum of topics and circumstances, at both ends of the spectrum, the focus of these case histories clusters around certain themes. There is an important implication of this clustering for executives in terms of the ways in which businesses must evolve their culture to ensure that their company actually delivers on the promise of being customer-facing.

In the case of the many highly-positive success stories are by customers about their suppliers, a significant majority involve innovations brought by the supplier to the customer. The word “innovation,” however, must be interpreted in the broadest possible way, reflecting in a dictionary definition sense “the introduction of something new”. The success stories reflect new products, new services, new business systems, new processes, and just about every other dimension of “new” that a business firm can envision. Sometimes the success story involves solving a problem; other times it involves getting ahead of an opportunity. When customers provide their success stories involving innovation, they describe the contributions with phrases like “they helped us get out in front of [some situation]” and “they enabled us to take our performance to a higher level”.

Unfortunately, customers also have horror stories to tell about their suppliers. They too vary from case to case, but, once again, the majority of horror stories share a common focus. In this instance, the common focus is a failure in implementation, suppliers that in some way failed to deliver on their commitments and promises to their customers. Again, the dimensions of implementation failure are many: late deliveries, short shipments, products that don’t work, calls that weren’t returned, service personnel that didn’t show up, wrong answers provided by technical support teams – the list goes on and on. The customer horror stories involve phrases like “they left us hanging” and (in the horror stories told with the most emotion) “they embarrassed us in front of our own customers”. As the latter statement suggests, many of these horror stories had further repercussions as the implementation failure rippled down the customer chain. Those telling such horror stories had extremely long memories – and very low forgiveness rates.

I provide those generalizations about success stories involving innovation and horror stories involving implementation failures to underscore the importance of building a customer-facing culture throughout every department in your company. In the vast majority of the success stories and horror stories that we’ve heard, the focus wasn’t on the supplier’s sales organization or its account management team. Rather, the success story originated with the product development team, the customer service team, the installation team, the logistics team, or some other part of the supplier’s organization. Similarly, the horror stories in almost all circumstances originated in parts of the supplier’s organization that had been largely unconnected to the customer prior to the incident that defined the horror story.

Building a customer-facing culture throughout a company is a difficult task. After all, unlike the sales organization and the strategic accounts team, individuals in other job functions have many day-to-day assignments that don’t involve interactions with customers. For many of these individuals, the customer-facing assignment even seems like an add-on task, possibly even in the “make work” category. It often goes to the end of the queue in terms of priorities.

The payoff from success in building a customer-facing culture is enormous. The number of CoDestiny success stories, in which a supplier created value for their customers and captured value for its own shareholders, attests to this[1]. The best business strategies originate from a foundation of shared successes in which suppliers and customers reach new markets, achieve higher price points, or improve their bottom lines by taking costs out. To be part of such shared successes, the entire organization must believe in and contribute to creating and nourishing CoDestiny relationships.

There are four lessons that have contributed in firms that have been successful in creating an organization-wide customer-facing culture. Implementing these lessons in your firm can reduce the degree of difficulty in making this change.

First, create the right connections between your people and those in the customer organization. Too often, the implementation of “getting other departments involved” is taking them on sales calls. Sometimes this is useful and even necessary, but it rarely is the way to build an ongoing interaction. On the other hand, when the right connections are made – your product development experts with the customer’s product development experts, your logistics managers with the customer’s logistics managers, etc. – the discussions can be fruitful and the start of an ongoing exchange. Many of the success stories originated with such connections. And many of the horror stories could have been avoided had such connections been in place.

One executive reflected on his firm’s own history as it related to connections to customer organizations as follows:

“For years, we worked hard to eliminate these ‘disruptions’. We taught our customer service people to shield the people in other departments from customer calls. We had a four step process to follow before we would allow them to go someone in the manufacturing or scheduling group. And then when we heard a complaint a customer, the people in the manufacturing or scheduling group would correctly say ‘This is the first I’ve heard of it’.”

This executive went on to discuss some of the changes that have been made:

“Now, we’ve build some bridges between our operations people and our customers. So at least for the major accounts, communication can go directly to operations if the customer thinks that is necessary or if they feel stymied. And our customer service people now believe that at the same time they have to be an efficient source of answers and problem solving, part of their job is keeping the operations people in the loop. No one will ever get fired for calling up someone in operations and saying ‘You need to hear this’.”

Individuals throughout this organization reflect on the sea-change that has taken place. They now believe that are part of a firm that connects to its customers.

Second, ensure that some interactions with customers focus on the future. Again, all too often, the natural agenda for a discussion involves either ongoing operations or a past problem. The former interactions are important and necessary to ensure that transactions take place smoothly. Past problems have to be resolved so that they don’t recur, but if all that is accomplished is some combination of finger-pointing and apologizing, all parties are usually quite eager to get the meeting over and get out of the building. When the agenda includes topics that focus on the future, not only does it create a sense of excitement and interest, but it also creates the foundation for a future success story if the individuals involved generate some creative sparks. This won’t happen every time, but it happens often enough when the right people are thinking about the right topics … and when the opportunity to do something is still in front of them.

The focus on the future also enables the most important contributions that can emerge from a customer-facing culture, namely those that result in the many different types of “innovation” that will generate future success stories. Good ideas are often the product of insights about the market, and direct interactions with customers by experts across any company’s many specialties and disciplines creates the most fertile field possible from which new ideas can spring. In the chronicle of success stories, the diversity of the origins of the ideas that spawned the success underscores this point.

Third, bring clarity, energy, and an active cadence to these interactions. Among the firms that were part of the horror stories, we often heard laments like “we tried that once, but it didn’t really work” and “we do have an annual executive meeting with [some customer], but it’s largely ceremonial”. It takes a real commitment – and usually a very proactive champion – to jump start an effective relationship with a customer organization. And it’s very easy to back slide and return to a low energy, infrequent mode of interacting. If your organization is going to make a commitment to a customer relationship, make it real and make it work.

Best practice organizations have a plan for their interactions with customers, and ensure that someone is responsible for making that plan happen. One executive that several years ago was quoted as saying that he intended to make his company more customer-facing described his thinking as follows:

“Soon after I got onto the customer-facing bandwagon, I asked myself ‘Why do you believe in this?’ That question started off a process, which we implemented for each of our most important customer relationships. I got a team together, from all parts of the company. And we sat together and tried to answer the question ‘What could we accomplish if we had a better relationship with this customer?’ Some of the people in the room had never met anyone in that customer organization, but everyone had ideas and opinions. What came out of this process was a blueprint for what it meant, customer by customer, to be customer-facing. And we then knew what to do and who to involve.”

Finally, we’ve all heard some version of the statement “if it’s not measured, it doesn’t matter”. That truth applies here as well. If your organization is going to be committed to customer relationships, there should be meaningful measurements in place reflecting the goals of the program, including What, Who, and When dimensions. The best firms not only have such measurements in place in the form of dashboards and scorecards, but they also share them with their customers (and in many cases gain the benefit of customer buy-in to the goals). It’s not just having measurements in place that is important. A significant part of the value comes from the process of deciding what the goals should be, a great way of getting others throughout the organization to think about how they can best contribute to strong collaborative customer relationships.

No one can guarantee a future success story or that future horror stories can be completely avoided, but the evidence is strong that those companies that connect effectively with their customers will make the former roster and avoid the latter one. Taking the steps needed to make your entire company customer-facing is a key first step towards a future in which the stories told about your firm will be ones that you’ll be delighted to repeat.


[1] See CoDestiny: Overcome Your Growth Challenges by Helping Your Customers Overcome Theirs, by Atlee Valentine Pope and George F. Brown, Jr., Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group Press, © 2010

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