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Sun, Apr

Are you really putting the customer first?

“Building Earth’s most consumer centric company.” It’s a powerful mission statement by Amazon and one that, except for the odd snafu over delivery, has been reflected in by the service I get when I buy from them (too often).

Many company claims to put the customer first are mere bombast. Take Transport for London’s decision to stop accepting cash on buses. Allegedly introduced for the customer’s convenience, this was justified by a consultation with 37,000 people. Yet only one in three of them, TfL admitted, liked the idea. Hardly an overwhelming endorsement! The benefit to TfL – in cost and convenience – outweighs any boon for customers.

This had me wondering how customer centric my business is. How often do we pretend that what’s good for us is good for the customer? I googled some leaders of companies that prided themselves on being customer centric. Amid the rhetoric about legendary customer experiences, one example struck home. The boss of American healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente emailed staff every week to celebrate a success. The company had halved the number of patient deaths from sepsis – and by telling every employee they had helped achieve that, he made it personal to all of them.

I can’t tell my staff they have saved a life but I can let them know when they’ve helped delight a customer - which is what I’m starting to do.

I read a funny story in ‘The Ten Commandments for Business Failure’ by former Coke president Donald R. Keogh. In 1989, Keogh was asked to speak at an IBM summit on thinking like the customer. Before his speech, IBM showed a video of senior managers discussing customer service. And in every discussion, in front of every executive, was a can of Pepsi.

Opening his speech, Keogh pointed out that, as the boss of one of IBM’s largest customers, he had been astonished to see such blatant promotion for his fiercest competitor – and even more amazed that nobody involved in making the video had spotted this. Here they were, he suggested, talking about focusing on the customer when they had been completely oblivious to one of their largest customers who was addressing the seminar. As Keogh noted: “The audience was nervous and the oxygen left the room. Then they exploded with applause. They understood the message.”

Nice to know that even the big guys get it wrong occasionally.

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