The power of the customer is growing and the businesses that can’t provide top quality service across multiple channels are being cruelly exposed. In this complex environment, world-class competitive advantage belongs to the alchemist CEOs who make the customer the focal point of the whole organisation.
Steve Pateman, Head of UK Banking at Santander, says: “You have to be focused on delivering an exceptional level of service to your customers, in every product and interaction. You cannot afford to be slack, because as soon as you are, two things happen: one, your customers move, because there are so many options, and two, your shortcomings become widely publicised.”
This is posing a number of questions for companies. Bridget van Kralingen, IBM’s Senior Vice President, Global Business Services at IBM says: “CEOs are reporting that technology is changing, from back office transactional support to really enabling connectivity with customers and clients… [However,] it has put a lot more power in the hands of the consumer. If you look at social media, there is no such thing as the corporate veil anymore.”
It goes way beyond the old mantra of ‘listening to your customers’. Chris Merry, CEO of accountancy firm RSM Tenon, explains: “The voice of the client is important to everyone. You need to filter feedback through the business to provide your people with the material to help them communicate effectively.”
For many organisations, the issue is that, as they’ve grown and technology has evolved, various silos have emerged which frustrate customers and inhibit decision-making. In fact, recent research from IBM suggests that although a large number of UK and Ireland CEOs (63 per cent) agree that customer relations is a key opportunity for sustained success, three-quarters of them feel they need better information to make that happen.
It’s about those at the top being able to drive strategy by making informed decisions. Stephen Leonard, IBM’s UK and Ireland CEO, comments: “Around 40 per cent of CEOs are saying they don’t have access to the right amount of data they need to make decisions, let alone the decisions that other people in their organisation need to make… [Success is about] arming people with the facts.”
After all, data has to be acted on for it to be effective. Jim Waller, Group Commercial Director at Carphone Warehouse, says: “The issue is just making sense of it… It comes in from lots of different sources and is a complete scattergun… What’s important is being able to interpret that data, and its implications.”
Bridget says: “In terms of how you lead an organisation, one of the key differences between overperformers and underperformers is how much data is embraced – the drive to access it, analyse it and act on it… There is so much out there about your customer that is unstructured and needs context and analysis, and now there is the means to do that in real time.”
When you have the data, allied to the perennial ability to get out there and find out what’s happening on the ‘front line’, you have a winning combination. Henri Winand, Chief Executive of clean power technology company Intelligent Energy, says: “If you are a CEO who never talks to your customers, then you won’t have the insights, and can’t organise your business in the way you need to. Without insights, it’s difficult to do good business.”
Steve certainly likes to take a hands-on approach, as can be seen by the way customer feedback is handled at Santander. He says: “Complaints are the best perspective on your business… I read all of those that reach executive level and will personally send them to the relevant business head to find out what will be done…
“Originally, annoyed staff asked why I was interfering when the complaints team were designed to deal with these things, but it has actually started to change the way people engage with complaints… Now we are starting to get a sense of ownership… they look at them, understand what went wrong, and they make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Keeping pace with customer expectations must be a strategic priority. As we’ve seen, from Kodak to Woolworths, even the largest, time-honoured of companies can become a casualty if it is unable to understand change and adapt accordingly, whether that’s because of new products, technology or levels of service.
Stephen explains: “A lot of companies are struggling and failing; it’s not that they don’t see what needs to get done, they just don’t get it done… Think about the UK high street – in recent years it has been essential that high street stores sub-optimise their business model to get to market fast enough… [but] they can’t.”
The successful CEO will be the one who thrives in such a connected, fast-moving world.
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