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Blocks to Customer Focus

By: Jim Clemmer

Jim Clemmer is an international keynote speaker, workshop leader, author, and president of The CLEMMER Group, a North American network of organization, team, and personal improvement consultants based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. His other bestsellers include Firing on All Cylinders: The Service/Quality System for High-Powered Corporate Performance, and his most recent book, Growing the Distance: Timeless Principles for Personal, Career, and Family Success. His web site is http://www.clemmer.net/


Despite all the proclamations, catchy advertising slogans, and customer service publicity, service levels have improved only marginally in the last few years. As Harvard Business School professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, puts it "Despite the recent media coronation of King Customer, many customers will remain commoners... most businesses today say that they serve customers. In reality, they serve themselves."

The problem is that most organizations only talk about customer service improvement. Many executives don't understand what outstanding customer service really looks, aren't ready to turn their organization inside out to provide it, are trying to paint happy smiles on their frontline service providers, or are bolting a customer service program on the side of their organization rather than making it a part of their core strategy.

Here's some of the biggest reasons that so few organizations successfully turn their customer service rhetoric into reality:
  • Little or no segmentation of markets and customer groups. The organization is trying to be everything to everybody. Customers are lumped into one indistinguishable mass and their expectations (if they've been gathered at all) aren't weighted, ranked, and segmented.

  • Little or no customer data. When it is collected (such as an occasional survey) positive feedback is acknowledged. But negative data is denied (usually by challenging the survey methodology). Budget priorities are set, cost containment initiated, and resources allocated with little, if any, systematic connection to customer priorities and expectations. Improvement activities are focused on what the organization or management considers important.

  • The organization is managed from the inside out. New products and services are pushed out to the market through sales and marketing. Customers aren't involved as active partners in research and development activities. A senior executive in a leading computer company once said, "If customers don't like our solutions, they have the wrong problems".

  • Employees are treated as the source of service breakdowns. Training and motivational campaigns (such as recognition programs) aim to "fix the frontline". Management pays little attention to all the research that proves "The 85/15 Rule" -- 85% of service breakdowns originate in organizational systems, processes, or structures.

    Internal customer tyranny runs rampant. Departments who are served by other departments use the concept of "internal customer-supplier relationships" to get their own needs met whether or not it improves external customer service.

  • Blurry line of sight to external customers -- many organizational members (other then those on the front serving lines) have little interaction with external customers and often don't understand (and have little reason to care about) customers' expectations and how their work ultimately helps or hinders meeting those expectations.

  • One customer group dominates. For example, the focus is on retailers, agents, or distributors with scant attention paid to the ultimate consumer. Little effort is made to understand and balance the needs of both groups while pulling products and services through the distribution or service chain.

  • Focus is on customer acquisition rather than retention. Investments in sales and marketing to bring in new customers are much higher then efforts to retain or expand business with current customers.

    Customer aren't people. Thinking of someone as a customer implies providing service, partnership, or some form of equality. However, when customers become "policyholders", "consumers", "patients", "passengers", "taxpayers", "accounts", or "advertisers" they often become less human.
Business is a lot like tennis, those who don't serve well end up losing. In a recent interview, Bob Green, a service/quality coordinator with AmSouth Mortgage in Birmingham Alabama summed up the challenge facing most organizations, "The financial products from one mortgage company to another are basically the same. We're out to play `quantum leapfrog' and jump out in front of our competitors. The only way we can do that is to know our customers overall needs more thoroughly and move more quickly to meet them then anybody else in our business."

© Copyright 2001 The CLEMMER Group

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