CXO

Help your clients become customer-focused

There's more to being a customer-centric organization than saying, "We care about our customers." Get some concrete advice on ways that consultants can help their clients keep customers in mind.

TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format.

Question
I am a consultant working for an organization that has a reputation for having poor customer service. I would like to change that, but I am not quite sure where to start. Of course, this organization doesn’t purposely try to irritate customers, but I can see how it tends to focus on its own priorities to the detriment of the customer. We can send people to classes on being customer-focused, but I have a feeling I will need more than that. Any thoughts?

—Phil

Answer
I congratulate you on your desire to be more customer-focused. For the most part, everyone has a customer they’re trying to satisfy. If you have a job working with outside (real) customers, this effort should always be a priority. Even people who don’t work directly with outside customers usually have internal customers—the people that receive the output of their work, whether that’s a product (like a computer application) or a service (like answering questions about a computer application).

I also congratulate you on recognizing that there is more to being a customer-focused organization than just adding it to your mission statement and sending everyone to training. I’ve seen and worked for organizations where customer service was promoted on big banners draped around the company. In reality, the customer focus was an inch deep, and it did not take much before the customer’s interest was put behind the company’s.

One of your ideas is to send your people to training classes. There is nothing wrong with this, but it’s just one piece of a large puzzle. What you really need to do is look at your work processes to see if they support a customer-centric organization.

Evaluate all the processes that are in place, both formal and informal, and see whether or not they take the customer’s interest into account. If they do—great. If they don’t, you should align them whenever possible to the customer’s desires. Just as importantly, if you don’t have formal processes in place to satisfy your customers, you should define new ones. I’ve identified some places to look for customer-focused processes.

Are you meeting customer requirements?
The fact that you have customers means that you’re producing a product or a service for them. Do you really understand what the customer needs, wants, and expects? When is the last time you asked them? Are you delivering products and services based on how it was done five years ago? Put in place recurring processes to validate your customer’s needs on an ongoing basis—perhaps a couple of times per year. For example, survey your customers every six months, or set up yearly customer focus groups to gather feedback from them. If you have yearly users group meetings, you should definitely use the events to gather input on your customer’s current needs.

Do you deliver in a manner that’s convenient to the customer or yourself?
In addition to understanding customer requirements, look at how you’re delivering your products and services. For instance, during the financial closeout process, your customers might have to work very late. Does the IT support group also work late? If the IT support group is on call but not on-site, you may be delivering service in a way that is convenient to you and not to your customers.

What guiding principles do you use to resolve problems?
Even the best customer-focused organizations encounter problems with customers. For example, you may have to deliver software later than the date you committed to, or you may be out of a product when the customer puts in an order. In many cases, conflicts arise from problems that aren’t your fault. You may ship a product that doesn’t arrive on time, or the customer may have caused a product problem through abuse.

One of the true tests of a customer-focused organization is how you resolve problems. You need to resolve conflict situations in a way that customers feel is fair. They may not get everything they want, but they should think the resolution was fair. If you always resolve conflicts in a way that you think is fair, but the customer does not feel good about, you’re not going to be viewed as customer-friendly.

How well do you communicate with your customer?
If you have processes in place to communicate actively and often, you are much more customer-focused than if you make the customer follow up with you to see what is going on.

How serious is your organization in meeting customer commitments?
Some groups regard commitments they make to their customers as sacred; other groups take the attitude that if things come up, or if problems get in the way, they just won’t meet the expectation. They find it easier to explain why the commitment was not met (after the fact), rather than focus on meeting it. This is not customer-focused behavior.

How are you measuring your performance?
The only way to know for sure that you are customer-focused is to capture a set of metrics that your customer recognizes. The simplest form is a customer satisfaction survey. For example, some companies send out a short e-mail survey after the completion of every support call. Over time, they get a sense of how satisfied customers are with their support level. The company can also track how the satisfaction level changes when process improvements are introduced. You should measure as many customer-focused processes as possible and practical, and strive to achieve targets that the customer helps establish.

Are your performance and recognition systems customer-focused?
In many organizations, good customer service is not rewarded and poor customer service has no consequences. It doesn’t matter what type of processes are in place if people aren’t ultimately held accountable for how they interact with your customers. In these circumstances, you will not get the customer-centric results you seek.

Summary
To really become a customer-centric organization, your clients must have processes in place that focus on the customer, they must adhere to customer-centric principles, and they must have customer-focused metrics to chart their progress. All of their work and people processes must be evaluated to ensure that they reinforce, instead of contradict, a customer-centric strategy. Being a customer-driven organization is hard work. It’s easier to just think of yourself. That’s why few companies are truly customer-focused. But with the right level of commitment, training, and leadership, you can instill that sense of dedication in your organization.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He's also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

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