Getting Close to Customers is Easier Said Than Done

By John Sanchez

 

CloseToCustomersWith Sysomos hosting an upcoming event in San Francisco about the link between social media and customer intimacy, I’ve been thinking even more lately about what “customer intimacy” really means. And it occurred to me that the term is really just the latest incarnation of a time-honored approach to delivering great products and service: Get close to your customers.

During a recent leadership meeting, I asked a group of our executives to stand up, put a hand in the air and repeat the phrase “we’re getting closer to our customers” five times while turning in circles. I’m proud to report that some members of the team took to the exercise with great enthusiasm—predictably, they were the Sales folks. Finance was a bit less enthusiastic. HR played along, but they were keeping an eye on me.

When we completed the exercise, I asked everyone to put down their hands and look to their left and right. Then I asked: “So are we any closer to our customers?” I’m pretty sure it had the desired effect.

The concept of customer intimacy is not new. In fact, you’ll find a virtually endless array of research, books, case studies and testimonials on the topic. While I find it curious that there’s still an endless appetite for even more “new” and “original” thought on the topic when so much excellent work always exists, the main takeaway for me is this: customer intimacy remains incredibly relevant today because it’s an objective companies truly want and need to attain.

I’m familiar with enough of the research to frame up a discussion about customer intimacy using all the usual jargon. But I think it would be far more helpful to share a few practical lessons about what it really takes to pursue customer intimacy—based on what I’ve learned over the years simply by rubbing elbows with the people we in business call “customers.”

  1. A fish rots from the head. Leadership is a privilege, and leaders set the tone for the organization in a million different ways. In the end, every resource a company has stems from the good will—and patronage—of customers. Customers can take their business elsewhere for any reason at any time. A company’s most senior leaders must sincerely understand and humbly demonstrate their appreciation of customers if there is to be any hope of influencing front-line staff to walk their talk.
  1. Common sense is not common. We all intuitively seem to understand what if means to receive exceptional service and how it looks when we deliver it. Yet consistent execution against this standard is the exception, rather than the rule. The path to “that very hot place” in the world of customer experience is paved with the best intentions. It’s true that the best and most memorable service experiences feel spontaneous. But the accompanying reality is that extraordinary, branded customer experiences—the consistent, intentional, differentiated and valued experiences that delight customers so much they’re willing to pay a premium for them—are the product of meticulous planning and hard work.  Companies that enjoy intimacy with their customers and provide exceptional service understand that it doesn’t just “happen.” They’ve worked tirelessly to plan, build processes, track and measure in order to ensure that their product or service meets or exceeds expectations.
  1. Service starts at home. We can’t expect that an organization’s ability to deliver service to customers would exceed the degree to which it regards its own team members and supplier-partners. A leader who walks by a team member she sees every day and fails to acknowledge that person’s humanity probably expects that team member to answer every call professionally and cheerfully. If internal systems for reward and recognition, coaching and feedback, payroll, or benefits are lacking, it’s a good bet that many of the steps along the customer journey—such as new customer onboarding, product sales and service, invoicing, and all the background processes that support them—are flawed as well.
  1. All the lessons learned before kindergarten from people like Dr. Seuss still count. Laugh if you like, but “please” and “thank you” are still the magic words. And if you keep frowning like that, there actually is a chance that your face may stay that way forever. We can find a great deal of wisdom on how we should listen to and try to understand customers in the digital age by reading, re-reading and applying lessons from Horton Hears a Who. Moreover, Yertel the Turtle nicely lays out the consequences for leaders who don’t listen to their team members—and for companies who don’t listen to their customers.
  1. Customers’ needs are simple. Soon after I first started working at Harrah’s Casino, I was assigned the task of observing service levels at our famous seafood buffet—under the watchful eye of a mentor of mine named Paul. We were running a special promotion that night, so the place was packed, and there was a long line of customers waiting to be seated that was getting even longer. Paul, an experienced pit boss who had cut his teeth at the Flamingo back in the early 1960s, had a sharp eye and an even sharper tongue. He immediately saw the problem and motioned for me to help as he quickly stepped in to seat customers and get the line moving. Later on when the line cleared, he set me straight: “Kid, customers only want three things: perfect, now and free. We mostly ain’t going to give it to ‘em free, so we’d better do the other parts great.” There’s really nothing I can add to that.
  1. “Try, try again.” I intentionally left off the first part of this proverb (“if at first you don’t succeed”) because even if you do succeed, it will be fleeting. Just as perfection should never get in the way of better, good is the enemy of great. Customers, competitors, the environment and technology are in constant flux, so solutions must be agile enough to anticipate and quickly change.
  1. Technology evolves to serve people, so it should be used only if it helps your customers. This week, I interviewed a candidate for a role at Sysomos. He mentioned that before his day had even started, he found that he’d been invited to a pub event, noticed that someone had a poor experience on an airline, and discovered that many people were exchanging views about the abdication of the King of Spain. Our candidate received all of this information, and contributed his own perspectives, over social networks. For him, social media is second nature—it’s simply how he communicates. So user, beware: trying to leverage social networks to become intimate with customers before you’ve attended to the basics is like trying to e-mail before you’ve achieved a basic level of literacy. Even worse, it will reveal what you don’t know and increase the chances of poor communication.  What’s clear is the fact that social media makes it much more difficult to “fake it” if you are not committed to customer intimacy and service.

If you’ve read this far, you may be scratching your head, wondering: “How can it be this simple, especially given all of the continuing discussion on this topic?” You may even be tempted to discount these seven principles as obvious platitudes with no underlying value. But as Ockham’s razor tells us, in the absence of certainty, the simplest explanation is often the most apt.

Talking about getting closer to customers while you turn around in circles won’t get you any closer to achieving it. But taking action to bring these seven principles to life in your company is guaranteed to take you a long way toward realizing the goal of customer intimacy.

 

John Sanchez is EVP of Global Operations at Marketwired—the parent company of Sysomos—where he leads the organization’s customer engagement and lean process redesign initiatives, and also oversees the client support teams that service Sysomos-powered products across the enterprise. A decorated combat veteran and graduate of both the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Wharton School of Business, he has over 26 years of experience in engineering, operational and financial roles in diverse industries.