Are your customers out of sight, out of mind?

11 Apr

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It’s far too easy for senior executives to be seduced by numbers, graphs, charts, red-amber-green ratings, and generally let their eyes glaze over when they hear the word, customers. Especially if you’re sitting in a conference room up on the 25th floor – customers look quite small from way up in the rarefied air of the corporosphere. 

I’m always fascinated by how companies try to get beyond the numbers on the page. This feels pretty important to me – people who forget that their customers are, well… people too, with feelings and emotions, just like them, then find it all too easy to perpetuate the language of ‘target markets’, produce ppt presentations with arrows and bullseyes in them and talk about capturing share of wallet, and ponder, in all seriousness, questions like, who owns the customer? Errm…. newsflash: I’m not sure anybody owns me, least of all a company I just happen to have chosen to do business with.

So, here then are 12 great examples of how organisations seek to remind their folk that customers are people too:

Amazon is famous for having an empty chair in executive meetings that represents the customer. Throughout the meeting, executives are reminded to include the customer in their decision making processes, and to ask, what would we do if the customer were sitting in this chair, here and now?

TUI, a leading UK based travel company went one further and for several years permanently displayed three key challenging questions on their boardroom wall – see picture. Slide1

The software provider Adobe won a Forrester Award in 2011 for its customer immersion programme (see short film) which is all about getting executives to stop thinking like boardroom automatons, and step into the customers’ shoes for a day, and build empathy.

For another example of a more interactive experience, a few years ago, CIGNA (US Healthcare) developed an Experience Room in the HQ for their people to walk through and live the customer experience. Some 80% in total went through it. It set out the ‘before and after’ for how the experience is and how it should be. It was imaginatively done, so for example, there was a scary ‘wall of paper’ that was, as intended,  overwhelming and that made the point well; imagine if it was you receiving all this paperwork, and at a vulnerable moment in your life, how would you feel? This is a powerful mechanism to force the company to think ‘horizontal end to end experience’ and not ‘vertical functional silos’. 

USAA are renowned for making their staff ‘wear their customers’ shoes’ (clearly, recruiting from the armed forces helps too). As they say “we require all of our staff to live the lives of our customers – only then can they understand their unique needs”.  So, for example, induction involves eating army rations and wearing helmets and Kevlar flak jackets. USAA calls this living customers’ lives in ‘surround sound’. If you think this is too gimmicky for you, then consider the story I heard of the lady who joined USAA many years ago during the Vietnam war – her first job was to ring up troops stationed overseas for the war. Having got the ‘job’ part of the call out of the way, she was told to stay on the line for as long as needed and simply talk to the soldiers. For many, she was a lifeline back to the ‘normal’ world, back in the US.

Office Depot, a US business-supplies chain, has a “planogram lab”, a prototype store, where it brings in customers to co-create and test new ideas. As the Economist reported, it “also uses the old trick of forcing senior managers to play the role of customers”.

Deere and company (tractors, US) invite farmers who are buying tractors to visit the factory with their families. This is a chance to cement the relationship, but also for factory line workers to meet their customers, and maybe better understand the role their products play in their customers’ lives.

Talk to the customer – yes, I know, it’s not rocket science is it? As I shared in a recent post, SouthEastern does it in person – they regularly hold “meet the manager” events at London Bridge station in the rush hour, where 10 or so senior directors gather with their clipboards, listening to their customers’ tales of commuting nightmares. Others do it over the phone. Virgin Media are strong here – resisting the temptation to just have managers passively listen to calls, and for a day only (when, let’s face it, the urge to check in with the day job will still be strong), they have every manager spend a week back on the floor, being trained up, then manning the phones and at the end of it all, reflecting back on what they’ve seen and learned.  I recall a great conference presentation from 2 years ago when David Perotta of Vodacom talked about how he ‘ambushed’ a senior management conference in South Africa by announcing that in 10 minutes each table would be joined by 10 customers, ready to talk to the executives, answer their questions and ask their own, about the products and services! As you might imagine, David said there was a fair bit of trepidation at the outset, but 45 minutes later, he couldn’t get the managers to stop talking!

Finally, my old employer, Aviva made a series of short films celebrating ‘heroic’ service. They were well made, emotional, and they had a powerful impact internally. And, interestingly, one of the principles underpinning production was that the individual who had made such a difference for the customer was reunited with the customer. Moving stuff, watch this one for example. Finally, this film, from Cleveland Clinic is also a superb example of building empathy and customer understanding.

 

Links for more information:

CIGNA source : Don’t Yield on Customer Trust, IBM White Paper, 2009 

The Economist, The Magic of Good Service

Deere and Company: How Customers can Rally your Troops, HBR June 2011, available at HBR.org

 

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