Why Corporations Continue to
Disappoint Customers

by Jeanne Bliss

For all the beating of breasts about the customer as king, we still haven’t gotten very far? Why? In my experience, it’s been because of the corporate machine and how we citizens of the machine have been programmed to achieve our success and reward.

The corporation has become a machine of mediocrity to its customers. Over the years, what goes out has been defined by the traditional silos created to drive competency vertically: such as marketing, sales, shipping, and operations. Those in charge of building the competencies are motivated to create performance standards within their span of control. And those of us working inside the silos have learned that success can be achieved most easily through compartmentalizing our work and staying singularly focused on our mission.

These separate standards inhibit executive leadership’s ability to comprehend and manage their company’s total situation with customers, as they are served up only a slice of how the company performs by silo. This frequently accounts for the random, reactive, and less-than-strategic responses I’ve seen presidents call for time and time again regarding customers. When squeaky-wheel issues are fixed per executive mandate, these efforts are heralded greatly, while pressing and strategic customer issues lie in wait as the corporate machine scurries to fix the one random issue that landed on the president’s desk.

Why Customer Efforts Fail

  1. Many CEO’s aren’t clear about where they want to take the company for customers

    When the CEO says ‘go focus on the customer,’ every one takes it differently. People want to salute the flag - they just don’t know exactly what that means. The shot gets fired into the air and a proliferation of tactics, vendor proposals and actions get going. But they often don’t aggregate up to something meaningful for customers.

    CEOs with customer passion have this ‘gut’ about how they want to show up to customers. It’s woven into how they give directives and inspire people and lead them directionally on where to take the company. When proposals are made, they have an inner compass which forces proposals to examine customer impact and whether factions of the organization are working together on a solution. They challenge how new ideas contribute to the realization of an end state for customers which they have thought deeply about. There clarity is palpable and understandable and they have found a way to communicate it to the organization – and the organization ‘gets’ it.

  2. CEOs may not get past a verbal ‘commitment’ to frame and modify actions for themselves and the organization

    What we have now is a frenzied awareness of a problem that often leads to an even more frenzied approach to a “solution.” These are the questions I always want to know from CEO’s who say they’re committed to the customer mission.

    • Are you clear in your mind about what you want to accomplish?

    • Do you understand the sweeping scope of the work?

    • Will you develop the new skills required for the company to thrive with customers?

    • Are you willing to commit company time and resources to make this happen?

    • As the CEO, do you sign up to be a true partner?

    • Will you insist on corporate patience?

    • Are you ready to push hard for strategic customer metrics?

    • Do you have the guts to drive reliability in company operations?

    • Do you have the focus to define the differentiated value you want to deliver to customers?

  3. The ‘customer’ still isn’t elevated as the major asset of the corporation

    Organic customer growth drives long-term profitability. So why isn’t it as important to CEOs as quarterly sales goals? Understanding the state of customer relationships and even something as simple as customer counts still pale in comparison to quarterly sales goals in the rate at which they are understood, managed and held up as a success factor of the business. No one knows the goal-line for customers. Most CEOs haven’t told their company what it is.

    • If you lose more customers than you keep, this is not good.

    • If you don’t know how many you’re losing versus keeping—this is even worse.

    • If no one’s asking the question or caring about the answer, you’re sliding down a slippery slope.

    Customer issues still aren’t making it as a priority in the company or to the boardroom level. According to a November 2004 Harvard Business Review article entitled Bringing Customers into the Boardroom, customer management issues being kicked upstairs are on the decline. Among the large U.S. companies surveyed for that article, over a third of them said that their boards spent less than ten percent of their time on customer-related or marketing issues.

  4. The metrics and motivation don’t line up with the commitment

    CEOs say they’re committed to customers but don’t make any modifications for how success is defined and what people are compensated and rewarded for. Or if modifications are made, it’s at such a high level such as attaching bonus to customer satisfaction survey score increases – that people don’t really know how to change their behavior. The metrics aren’t attached down to relevant operational changes. There are even times that satisfaction score goals can be negotiated out of relevance if a high sales performer doesn’t make the grade on customer satisfaction but hit the ball out of park bringing in new business. Tilt. The company takes a queue from where people are rewarded and what the company really cares about and will act accordingly.

  5. Inconsistency for driving accountability – There’s often not a recognizable platform for accountability

    Companies who do this right spend the time to lay out what the new metrics are down to the operational level. And they establish meaningful forums and methods to hold people accountable. The ‘customer stuff’ is not wedged into an over-crowded meeting agenda and potentially pushed completely off when time falls short. The work is done to clearly identify how the different sections of the customer experience are accountable by individual areas and through collaboration. And accountability is clearly attached to each.

  6. It’s not natural for the company to work together

    It’s still not natural to work horizontally across the silos. Each faction of the company continues to establish their own plans, budgets and goals. The challenge of this work is that it cuts across the entire organization and orchestrating that new behavior isn’t often factored in. This won’t happen naturally and the CEO must be a major player in a)identifying that this new skill is necessary, b) finding someone to bring the pieces together to work on common efforts, and c) reinforce through accountability, metrics and motivation that these are the necessary behaviors in the new customer-focused world.

  7. Fleeting corporate patience to drive sustainable change

    This work is not for the mild-hearted or quarterly inclined. Becoming a ‘customer’ company is a multi-year endeavor. CEOs can't bail in the first year because the results don't come as simply and cleanly as seeing response rates on a marketing campaign, tracking sales goals, or the number of page views on your Web site. The CEO must have the belief and commitment that this is the right course. The company must hear that the company ticker on proclaiming something a success or failure has a much longer timeline here. When things seem to waver (and they will), people will need to hear that the corporate patience exists to stay the course.

    We have been programmed to worry about lack of results in increments of quarters, and so people will be anxious unless timelines and expectations for results are reset. If the CEO doesn't personally commit to corporate patience, people will see right through it. They'll abandon efforts when their performance rating is at risk for staying focused on the "customer stuff" that's not yielding results quickly enough for the impatient corporate machine.

  8. Lack of understanding and commitment to the scale of change and work required

    Relegating this work as a marketing project or customer service goal is not enough. For the customer work to take-hold it must be seen for what it is and understood for the challenge that it will be to the ‘normal’ workings of the corporate machine. The CEO needs to be realistic about what accomplishments are requested and support it accordingly. I’ve been in more situations than I care to remember where the ‘commitment’ was there but not much more. People will see right through this and the corporate ‘nay-Sayers’ will be quick to point out that this is yet one more empty promise about customers.

CEOs on a realistic path for this work recognize its scale and understand that many people may need to be assembled to bring about the level of wholesale change required. For example, in Whirlpool Corporation's transformation, a whole team was assembled with company-wide engagement and commitment of resources. The team created by Chairman and CEO Dave Whitwam included a vice-president of customer loyalty, vice-president of leadership and strategic competency development, and a leader of diversity and inclusion, among many others. It was understood that the transformation required an emphasis not only on customer loyalty but also on the skill sets for bringing new competencies into the organization, and engagement and inclusion among all company levels.

Getting Past Lip Service to Passionate Action

Here’s the deal about this book. It’s about reality. How to get the customer thing done beyond the crystal balls and anthems and big kick-offs. It’s about how to push the customer rock up the hill by turning the focus on the obvious: customer profits. It’s about how to figure out how big that hill is. And it’s about how to keep that rock from sliding on your head…as little as possible. It’s about figuring out if you’ve got the leadership guts to take this effort on, and it’s about navigating the corporate machine to figure out how and where to best leverage this effort from. And yes, this book is also about knowing when to pick up your marbles and go home. So enough already with the hand-waving and chanting that this year really is about the customer! Enough with the crazy task forces; the meetings before the meetings; the meetings after the meetings; and the actual silly meetings that accomplish little more than pushing peas around on our plate. Let’s get something done.

There’s a lot of talk going on now about having a “Chief” to own the customer effort. Sounds great, right? Well…maybe. Don’t put your money down until you know what you’re buying and how it can fit in inside your organization and how hard you have to work to make it a success. This is expensive real estate in terms of commitment and time and people and changing how people work. It will send some into a state of happy delirium and will annoy others. You need to know exactly what it will do to whom and why before you pull the trigger. Does this Chief give everyone the ability to wipe their hands of doing the “customer thing?” Does this Chief person make it easier for the CEO to make a public commitment to the customer? And just what are they “Chief” of? Surely to lead the customer thing, don’t they need to own the operations where the customer issues are created and resolved? Not necessarily. Who does this report to? Is this an evangelist or a doer? You’ll get answers to all of these questions. You’ll examine your organization and determine if this is the right fit for you. Most importantly, this book will prod you into understanding what’s stalled your efforts in the past; what are the deeply rooted things in the way your organization is wired that has gotten in the way; and what considerations are required before you step yet again into the customer commitment arena.

For twenty-five years, I’ve had the fifty ton weight of “Just go fix it” strapped to my back regarding the “customer thing.” I’ve worked with enlightened leaders where we’ve been in lock-step every step of the way. Having had the good fortune to begin my customer zealotry career at Lands’ End, reporting to founder Gary Comer, I received the foundation to know when that path was right. But I’ve spent way too much time pounding on doors to get into meetings, onto the agenda, and to have a seat in the room where the “big” decisions are made. These experiences gave me a living laboratory to figure out how to navigate in less friendly waters. My instincts for knowing which kind of water I’m in has become quite sharpened, as have the different approaches required to get the job done. Over the years, these survive and thrive tactics have amassed into a play book which are now assembled into this tome you’ve almost got in your hands.

It’s my goal to give you as many ways as possible to fight the gravity of that rock. Along the way, you’ll also need to become a bit of a Tom Sawyer, getting people to come paint your fence, and I pass along those things too – because the real joy in this work comes when it’s not your own anymore – it’s the organization’s. I hope you find real value in these methods behind the madness, passion, guts and process to get a company to wrap itself around its customers. Keep pushing on that rock! Through this book, I’ve got my hand in the small of your back prodding you on.

Reprinted with the permission of Jossey-Bass, all rights reserved, no portion of this may be reproduced without the permission of the publisher or author, Jeanne Bliss.

Jeanne Bliss has over twenty-five years holding the responsibility for driving the customer effort inside the ‘corporate machine’ - with Lands’ End, Inc. - Leader for the Lands’ End Customer Experience, reporting to founder Gary Comer; with Allstate Corporation - Vice President, Customer Satisfaction and Retention; Coldwell Banker Corporation - Vice President, Franchise Services; Microsoft Corporation - General Manager, Worldwide Customer and Partner Loyalty and Mazda Corporation - Senior Manager, Customer Satisfaction. Visit www.customerbliss.com for additional information.


Many more articles in Customer Service in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2006 by Jeanne Bliss. All rights reserved.

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