Simple Answers and Hard Tasks

Former President Ronald Reagan once said, “There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers.”

That wise advice came to mind in a recent workshop focusing on the challenges of developing stronger and more actionable voice of the customer messages for a firm in the packaging industry. Like so many firms, this one had invested in a number of initiatives that basically drew yawns from the marketplace. Disappointed at that reaction to their use of very scarce innovation resources, they hoped to find ways to do far better in the future.

Several years ago, I coauthored a paper describing best practices in business-to-business relationships.[1] In that paper, we presented a number of best practice ideas culled from working with leading firms across many industries. One of the lists of ideas focused upon ways a firm could elevate its strategic customer relationships. Among the entries on this list were the following ten concepts:

  1. Create formal, multi-functional teams assigned to “steer and strengthen” the customer relationship.
  2. Create a study group with assignments to members to do presentations about the customer and its business environment.
  3. Set up cross-company audits.
  4. Jointly sponsor market research, benchmarking, or other research into shared areas of interest, with participation from people from various job functions in the two organizations.
  5. Formally analyze the customer chains that involve your company and your customer.
  6. Publish a “What’s New at [your customer]” e-newsletter and circulate it among all the people and departments that are involved within the relationship.
  7. Create a pair of executive-level champions from the two organizations and create ongoing interactions involving them and their teams.
  8. Involve people from your customer’s organization in one of your planning sessions.
  9. Get your customer to react to your business plans, involving experts from their organization to help you think “out of the box” as well as individuals from the customer organization that might be impacted by changes in your own directions, products, or processes.
  10. Draw a roadmap of the parts of your company’s organization that must contribute if the relationship is to succeed and create an action plan that actively involves the organizational units on that roadmap in the relationship on a high-frequency basis.

In the discussion with the executives from the packaging firm mentioned above, I shared this list of ideas, and asked them how many they had implemented in the past. After a period of silence, one executive offered his answer: “I think we’ve done two of them … well, sort of done two of them … at least a little bit.”

While his response clearly suggested a bit of embarrassment, he needn’t have felt that way. In engagement after engagement, I hear similar summaries. A firm that can say they’ve truly done more than half of the items on this list can think of itself as operating in the upper regions of best practice firms in terms of customer relationship management. In a few instances in which firms were exposed to this list and bought into the value of the suggestions, it has taken a few years to reach the “done that check off” for half of the list’s elements.

The elements on this list are “simple answers” to the challenge of doing a better job in managing customer relationships and creating the foundation for high-quality voice of the customer messages, but none are in any way “easy answers”. Remembering President Reagan’s fondness for baseball, I close with a quote made famous in the movie A League of Their Own: “If it were easy, everybody would do it.” In this instance, while not easy, it’s worth doing.

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