Customer strategy and the art of listening

Oct 19 2010 by Robert Heller Print This Article

Customer strategy is really the only business strategy that really matters. Product and product-driven strategies are dead, at least in theory (although in practice they haven't died altogether).

But there aren't many businesses, even in retail, let alone sectors further removed from customers, that have reinvented themselves to achieve a truly customer-centric business system. In a perfect world, such a system begins with the customer, reworks all processes back from the customer, and aims them towards achieving excellence as seen through the eyes of the customer.

The object of such a system is to gain a deep understanding of customers, in order to: give them what they want; how, where and when they want it; at a profitable price that they are happy to pay.

All the advertising and marketing in the world won't make up for failures on these key strategic elements. Not only must the technology support the service and the product support the promise, but quality must support the 'customer value proposition'.

Even human resources policies must support this customer focus: if you want contented customers, first get contented staff.

Arriving at this nirvana isn't easy - incremental improvement is not enough. Nor are excellent systems. The three strategic elements above must all be served Ė and not lip-served.

Lip service, however, is what happens in reality. 'The customer is King' is a noble mantra, mouthed by senior managers in every industry. True in theory, it is an ignoble lie in most companies.

Executives sometimes talk about customers as if they are some strange and separate breed, described with demeaning phrases like 'punters'. The executives are similarly insensitive to the most important customers of all Ė their own staff. These customers depend on top management's service for sensible strategic direction, the effective operation of efficient systems, and proactive treatment as human beings, not as 'human resources'.

Irrefutable statistical evidence has established a clear link between three types of satisfaction: employee, customer and shareholder. Satisfy the first, and the customers love you more: investors follow suit as sales and profits duly rise. But many managers, even retailers, whose customers are highly visible, prefer the ivory tower to the store floor. They hatch their absurdities behind closed doors.

Impervious to suggestions and criticisms (often powerful) from lower staff, blind to the potential huge contribution of middle managers, these executive hatchers are hardly likely to listen to the customers who are supposed to be kings (and queens).

Yet Andy Grove, former chairman of Intel, emphasises that customer complaints, 'both internal and external', are 'a very important source of information'. That's true. So how chief executives answer personally addressed complaints (or don't) speaks volumes.

Incommunicado bosses who delegate customer care to underlings and never check their performance, are themselves infected by systemic diseases that only they can cure.

That vicious circle is everybody's problem. It can only be broken by truly 'giving them what they want'. This means finding out what the customer wants by two means: inspired imagination, which anticipates changing demand for goods and services; and simply 'listening' to the customers.

Listening requires no inspiration. But the perceptions gained by doing so are the essential guide to setting and meeting quality standards and achieving excellent and vital customer retention.

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About The Author

Robert Heller
Robert Heller

Robert Heller, who died aged 80 in August 2012, was Britain's most renowned and best-selling author on business management. Author of more than 50 books, he was the founding editor of Management Today and the Global Future Forum. About his latest title, The Fusion Manager, Sir John Harvey-Jones wrote: "The future lies with the thinking manager, and the thinking manager must read this book".