A culture of customer focus

For a long time, customer service was a differentiation mechanism that set companies apart from their competitors; it made companies and firms unique.  Think of the fabled Nordstrom, a Seattle company so focused on customer service that they became the stuff of legends.  Historically, customer service was driven by relationships.  People purchased goods and services in their communities, from people they knew and trusted.  Through a technological revolution, huge companies outgrew their customers, many failed to adapt.  The world looked divided: huge, faceless companies where customers spoke with automated phone systems, and small, community driven shops where people still knew your name (this is a rather black and white vision in a world of grey, but sometimes we simplify for understanding).

The world is shifting again.  Moving away from a concept of customer service and to one of customer focus: ownership, fidelity, personalization.  Companies and firms taken ownership of their customers’ experiences, show them loyalty, and personalize their offerings to meet their needs.  Undoubtedly, companies experience benefits from their super-users and from the general public.  History, particularly post-recession, is littered with failed companies whose declines resulted, among many contributing factors, from failures to adapt to technology and from a lack of customer focus.  Many of these companies suffer from a reactive stance as opposed to a proactive stance.  The near failure of Sprint Mobile was due to their total inability to connect with customers, and customers’ total inability to talk with anybody real at the company.  The continuing fall of Macy’s Department Stores resulted significantly from their move toward discounting and a lack of focus on customer relationships.  Only masochists fly US Airways, which tries hard to be the low-cost leader on their routes because they are not infrequently rude to their customers.  Many banks fail in their customer service, resulting in shallower relationships than they could otherwise garner.  Banks are notoriously old, siloed, and sales and task oriented.  So what constitutes great customer focus?

Think of some of the new offerings by various companies: Chase has a dedicated customer service line for their premium credit card clients, Zappos will let you return anything free of charge, Whole Foods is laser focused on providing a full customer experience, AT&T Wireless will let you speak with a human when you have questions.  More often than not, companies who are leaders in their category are focused on making the customer experience something of value unto itself.  A few years ago, even Walmart made a change in its customer focus, impressing upon staff the need to be courteous and to take ownership of customers’ needs.  The world’s best companies know that great customer focus turns regular users into heavy users, and heavy users into super users.

Customer focus goes beyond customer service.  Being courteous is pointless if the problems persist.  The most important aspect to customer focus is to proactively own the customer experience – from start to finish, great companies make sure that customers have their needs met.  Not only do customers want their product or service, they want to feel value from the process of its acquisition.  But customer focus is most important when things go wrong – and no matter how perfect, sometimes things do not work the way they were intended.  Great companies immediately own the problem and work toward a solution without demanding that their customers be part of it.

Organizations design themselves, their cultures, and their long-term goals around meeting customer and client needs.  The trap of cheapness and cost cutting undermines long-term growth and customer satisfaction through its elimination of systems that impact customer experiences.  Under-training and under-staffing drive companies to compete on price – a self-perpetuating system of customer failures that risk detaching companies from their most important asset: customer loyalty.  Before the era of social media, you never heard of a company that had a “word of mouth” marketing department – companies now have departments dedicated to social media.  Perhaps making customers better off in the beginning would save the trouble of failed social media campaigns.  Customer focus takes a proactive customer culture – not a reactive media department.