I just read two news articles this morning of the type that make me gnash my teeth and shake my head. Both involved Fortune companies planned to cut staff by the thousands based on bad financial results. Say what? To these companies, I ask, “Why were you carrying so much excess staff you could do without?”
Most service companies carry double-digit percentage excess staff. Likewise for product companies in their back and front office settings. How do I know? Process redesign, streamlining in particular, plays a primary role in helping clients meet and exceed customer requirements. And we constantly find excess staffing over-distributing decision-making authority, leading to employee disempowerment and creating excess bureaucracy, both of which drive customers nuts. Today’s customers want to deal with well-trained, empowered employees and as few of them as possible – and on the web an increasing percentage wants to research and order commodity goods without any personal contact.
So how does head count typically change after streamlining? By a negative 15% to 20%, in our experience. But rather than streamlining, most organizations throw people at problems, and the more they add the less efficient and effective work becomes. So instead of streamlining to create a win-win for both company and customers, they create lose-lose by overstaffing.
What’s your knee-jerk reaction to hearing someone say, “our average customer?” Mine is to wince. Describing customers according to statistical averages – age, income, net worth, shopping trips per week, number of employees, annual revenues, number of vendors used for each purchase category and on and on – tells us something about customers. Seeing a statistical distribution across each of these parameters tells us lots more. But still not very much. We can’t understand customers without understanding their behaviors, And you can’t average behaviors. What’s the average of leaving a restaurant angry and believing you overpaid? Might as well average a tomato and a pork chop.
Nonetheless, we let the impracticality of assessing and responding to individual behavior dictate use of statistical averages to describe customers. Then we enhance the data by imputing behaviors to people we don’t know. Is this the best we can do?
How should we go about understanding our customers?
Before asking leading questions (and using your answers), I should share that I’ve started a new book exploring the inherent conflict of interest between buyers and sellers and how it should influence customer-centricity and CEM. The working title is “I am Buyer. You Are Seller. That’s the Problem,” and I plan to solicit input using Linkedin, CustomerThink and my blog. If I want to quote someone directly, I’ll ask first.
First leading question: Is designing customer strategies and enabling process to suit “average” customers (customer models) consistent with customer-centricity and CEM – or should sellers be designing “process-on-demand” (term from my Linkedin colleague, Bob Starinsky) that accommodates each customer individually?
The optimist in me says, “Probably not.” The realist in me suspects we are, for several reasons.
-Customers were initially grateful that many companies appeared to be searching for comity. However, buyers now appear to be moving through this phase, which I call “play nice.” Now they’re seeing through the many insincere seller efforts to look and sound more customer-centric and becoming more cynical and mistrustful of sellers than ever. Hence, an increasing percentage is no longer “playing nice.”
-Influenced not only by transacting business over the web but by not seeing the “what’s in it for them” from forming relationships with sellers, many buyers are trying to minimize contact with sellers, preferring efficiency over spending time interacting with sellers.
-The more latitude sellers give buyers to “have it their way,” the more idiosyncratic customer behavior becomes – to the point where finding common approaches to satisfying varied customer preferences is becoming very difficult. “Process-on-demand” (term coined by my colleague Bob Starinsky) is beginning to replace customer best practices.
In our rush to see business through customer-centric lenses, we have a tendency let go of some valuable product-centric insight. A past client that asked me to return for a new initiative just reminded me of the value in holding onto some “old” business concepts and techniques – in this case focusing on the product lifecycle rather than the more popular (and trendy) customer lifecycle.
This company’s industry took a severe regulatory hit that all but eliminated the largest of four related industry sectors. And the larger two of the remaining three continue to shrink from Internet competition. Now the stronger industry players are trying to morph into “something other,” creating a “new” – or more accurately “enhanced” – service sector. The jury is still out on their success. Weaker players are going away. But in the face of all these departures in a shrinking industry, my client decided to plant both feet in the smallest of the four industry sectors, the one with historically weakest service delivery because it’s hardest to provide – but a service sector they’re confident they can grow by raising service quality.
Gutsy move. But certainly not without precedent. Depending on which version of product life cycles we learned, we might label this dozens of different ways, but I’d call it the “last act standing” strategy. Much bigger piece of a smaller pie (and not as many forks). Ample customer need for the foreseeable future fortified by opportunity to grow demand. Plus opportunity to move smartly into the “enhanced” service category, but with a cornerstone service for many customers that competitors have either abandoned or deemphasized. Wise move. But a move you’re unlikely to make if you’re thinking all customer all the time.
For an analogy, think about incandescent light bulbs. Who would invest in incandescent bulb manufacturing today? Try a really smart operator with impeccable timing, While on one hand I’d shudder at the thought of investing in picking up where GE is leaving off, on the other I’d rub my hands with glee at the thought of being the last incandescent bulb maker standing, or even the strongest of the last few. Demand won’t dry up for a long, long time. And margins will grow as competition declines.
If you abandon the past and only focus on more fashionable customer-centricity and customer life cycles, you’ll miss opportunities like these.
Calling corporate customer-centric planning deficient is paying it a big compliment. From Fortune companies to entrepreneurial businesses, and our practice spans both, well under 10% of companies understand even the most rudimentary techniques for letting customers drive the strategic equation, and the true number may be less than 5%. Senior managements at the remaining 90 – 95% plus:
a.) Want to become more customer-centric, but can’t find their way out of traditional, company-centric planning approaches
b.) Are still playing the we-them power game
c.) Let financial planning drive their companies
d.) Are content to spout lots of “customer-this, customer that” bromides
e.) Believe letting middle management implement CRM or CEM or Social CRM or whatever new fad is out there will get them close enough to customers?
Unfortunately, customer-centricity starts with aligning strategies with customers through effective customer-centric planning processes – before it moves through aligning process with strategies and technology with process. Lacking well thought-out, customer-responsive business strategies, companies can’t move off the dime in customer-centricity terms – unless their CEO is Jeff Bezos, Fred Smith, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs or someone else with customer-centricity so baked in their brain they can skip planning and go straight to execution.
Why do we have this problem and what should we do about it?