Post No.: 0297
For those who run a business – lead from the front rather than huddled in the middle or hiding at the back. The front is where your customers/clients are and where the action is.
When your customers have a choice, you cannot ‘push’ things onto them – you have to attract or ‘pull’ them to you. Merely offering even more ‘choice’ is therefore not the answer.
Nowadays, you cannot just focus on offering ‘products’ but on giving ‘customer experiences’ that maybe take some of the stress out of their lives or offer some other benefit, whether they are big corporate clients or individuals looking for a coffee. Your relationship with your customers is more ‘wraparound’ or comprehensive, not merely limited to transactions across a seller-customer divide. Consumers are more discerning nowadays so treat all of your customers as individual and special. They want more service, more things on their own terms, more simply and with more value. They want to feel personally valued and welcome. They often want it all!
When products are largely similar in the marketplace – it’s the art of interaction, the way your products are delivered, that becomes the attractive unique selling proposition (USP). ‘Points of parity’ are the minimum, then you’ll need ‘points of difference’ to stand out from the competition. When talking about ‘brands’ – it’s the themed customer experience that must be the trademark, not the mere logo. It’s multi-sensory; a distinctive and memorable customer experience they can see, hear and feel. That’s where desire and loyalty can be fostered. It’s not just about what you do but how you do it (e.g. the fluffy flourishes and nice touches, the ‘going the extra miles’, the aftercare, the humour and personality) – the seemingly little details count and can make all the difference.
…And the only way to know whether this experience is right, to know what your customers feel and want to feel – is by putting yourself in their shoes, breathing the air they breathe and seeing the world through their eyes. And this means leading from the front of your business rather than hiding in some opaque ivory tower.
So engage with your customers regularly to find out what you need to do to meet their needs, and then do it! Mingle with them yourself, be in their shoes and actually be one of them if you can. Don’t leave that task only to designated market researchers. Most of the knowledge you need presents itself at your frontline, not in your management system. Most of the answers you need are in the passion and intellect of your frontline staff too – they typically know more than executives hiding in the middle. So consider allowing them some freedom to simply ‘do what they think is right’ for the customer (having educated them on the issues of profitability and the law first!) It’s like a footballer on the field may spot an opportunity to take a corner kick quickly when all of the opposing team is napping for a split-second – the manager standing on the sideline likely won’t have spotted that opportunity. So listen to your frontline employees and let them guide you and you’ll uncover a lot of customer insight. They’ll normally understand your customers closer and better for being at the front and interacting with them. Listen to your customers directly too of course. In this context, behave like a small company even if you are big because small is more personal and connected with its staff and customers.
Brands are built from every detail, not merely from advertising campaigns or PR, and you should expect your organisation to follow those details consistently. The brand comes through in everything you do, including your call answering system or other ‘touchpoints’. Where your customers directly interact with your company (e.g. your call centres and shop fronts) are the most important places to have customer empathy. People are also more likely to remember and put more weight onto negative experiences than any positive ones they experience. Your customers are the starting point rather than the end.
Unsolicited mailshots create a customer touchpoint and these may provide a positive return for their investment. But say if 2% replied – how would the other 98% feel after receiving the (usually incessant) unsolicited messages? Some of them could feel more alienated from your brand and associate your brand with ‘annoying spam’. That’s the bigger picture. You therefore need ‘permission marketing’, where the customer individually decides the timing of any offers made to them. Generic mailings are usually ignored; and merely inserting their name on the header won’t make it personal because they’ll eventually see through this automated ploy, although it’s better than not using their name. Conversion rates with opt-ins are much higher than unsolicited approaches too. Marketing remains important but once again it’s about letting your customers take much of the lead rather than trying to push things onto them.
Let people behave like human beings at all times – break down any hierarchies. Your position must not be allowed to distort your understanding of your team members and customers (e.g. don’t shy away from getting your own hands dirty too, as it were). Allow, respect and listen even if your most junior staff member says you are wrong or has a suggestion. An inflexible hierarchy inhibits employee contribution, so don’t punish people for bad news – encourage them to tell you truthfully and tell you early. This will also ensure that they feel like they’re contributing to the organisation in a meaningful way, which improves job satisfaction because they’ll feel valued, and they’ll also feel a greater loyalty and alignment with the company’s goals since they’ll have partly shaped it. So connect everyone’s work to a shared vision – build that attitude into your business from the top to the bottom. Woof!
First train your employees to be able to deliver better service and quality, then give them the authority to control quality themselves – after all, what’s the point of training them if you cannot subsequently trust them?! Improve your recruitment and training if they cannot be trusted. Most people will do the right thing if allowed to do so. You need some rules of course (e.g. if they’re going to make decisions then make sure they’re trained and competent in that area first and that they communicate it with everyone else who’s relevant first too).
There are or should be no walls or borders between organisation and customer, or board member and shop floor employee, for instance. It’s not just the people at the top but everybody in your organisation who must directly connect with your customers – you are essentially trying to encourage leadership at all levels (see Post No.: 0262). Link actions with consequences by handing responsibility to the individuals who do the actual work (e.g. if a customer has a complaint with a particular aspect of a product, let the person who directly created that part call the customer back him/herself so that he/she can learn from the customer experience and make improvements). So allow the people who actually interact with your customers, or are at the shop floor, to take the initiative on behalf of your customers. Key information does not travel top-down but bottom-up, which also illustrates the importance of good communication channels.
Act on the system, not the individual employee – for example, incentive programmes based on hitting targets assume that you need to change the employee’s behaviour to improve performance. But if they are hit-and-miss targets then you are often simply setting up your people to fail or cheat or otherwise focus narrowly on the targets at the expense of other important value creation. At an organisational level, it could make you distort the figures or your business activities (e.g. seeking short-term gains that compromise long-term goals, or creative accounting) – you’ll end up playing a lifeless numbers game rather than leading a living, breathing and thinking organisation. The economics of any project always matters but reducing something to merely a numbers game will make the organisation lose sight of the total tangible and intangible value it could create.
Although sometimes we can create products that consumers didn’t know they wanted until they existed, it’s far riskier to look for customers after you’ve created your products i.e. you must provide what they are looking for. Have ‘a customer in mind for every decision’ – they ultimately lead and decide what you make and do. And to understand their needs or wants, this may involve consensual data and feedback collection (maybe in return for preferential offers) and looking for patterns or trends in more-or-less real time so that you can respond to any changes rapidly. Satisfaction doesn’t alone deliver loyalty because satisfied customers can defect too – customers only care about what you are going to give them now or next. This has to be within set parameters and with the right customers though, otherwise you’ll be pulled out of shape by responding to inappropriate demands! You cannot do everything for all people so concentrate on your strengths.
Accept and deal with complexity – ‘keeping it simple’ is true in execution but it’s not true when deciding what you need to do. Never make decisions that favour one party at the expense of another (e.g. shareholders over employees) – try to seek win-win outcomes for all. There might be some internal competition but cooperation should prevail because everyone involved in your organisation is after all on the same team – the competition is mainly against competing organisations. You must also base your decisions on the long-term outcomes, so tough choices sometimes need to be made. Never compromise your brand or culture for the fastest growth. Take it slower if you have to. Never dilute the experience and quality for your customers because these shortcuts will one day catch up with you.
Break away from thinking that change is too big, difficult or unrealistic, that someone has to be at the top of the organisation to influence large-scale change, that you are doing okay simply because your internal measures say so, that your people are incapable of helping to create a better system, that empowerment is something you have to give each single time, that individuals alone have control over their own performance, or that mass-production-thinking is always the ultimate objective. Navigate using the principle of external customer control instead of internal hierarchical control, which means a lot of the (though not all, especially the big) decision-making will move down to the front to your frontline staff, who are doing business for the organisation one customer at a time.
So a leader or manager’s role is not to power trip but to support the team in the thick of it, in exercising their own decision-making. Leaders who are closer to the front and/or empower their frontline staff tend to be more effective.
Only by directly being at the front yourself can you truly personally understand what’s going on in your organisation. Leaders belong at the front rather than shielded behind intermediaries and neatly bound reports. And so if your company grows big – never start to become aloof or distance yourself from the people who actually deliver the service or give you their custom! Feelings do matter and will affect decisions in business, so feel your customer’s pain. Be in touch with your customers to be in touch with reality and so that you can take the swiftest action possible upon it. Listening shows that you care so don’t just guess or assume – simply ask them what they want and take your guidance from there. And along with your customers, the employees at the front are the most important people in the organisation rather than those on the board.
Woof. Lead from the front!