Are you customer-centric?

Editor's Note
I'd like to introduce our new columnist for our B-to-B/E-commerce Community Page, Jim Sterne. Jim has been an author, lecturer and consultant in the field of e-commerce from the time before there was such a field. He is the author of several best-selling books on Web marketing and customer service, and he has lectured all around the country helping people get the most out of their business investments on the Web. Jim's company, Target Marketing, is in Santa Barbara, Calif.




Is your company customer-centric? Does your firm actually place the customer at the middle of its every thought? How about at the middle of every 10th thought? OK -- how about at the middle of every thought you have about your customers? I ask because Kristin Zhivago, editor of the "Marketing Technology" newsletter and a good friend of mine, recently came back from a watershed consulting experience with a large technology company you all know.

"Every time they got up to the white board and started diagramming customer-related processes, they would start by putting themselves in the middle," she told me. "And every time, I'd get up, cross out the company name and write 'The Customer' in that central box. Each time, they'd say, 'Oh, yeah - right!' and then do it over and over and over again!"

This was amusing and sad at the same time. Kristin and I have spent so long focusing on customer-centricity, it's part of who we are. It seems old hat. So we are astonished when otherwise intelligent business people drink and drive, use foul language or forget to place the customer in the center of their working lives.

Start on your home page. Does it look like a political football with every department vying for top-button exposure? Does it categorize your company by business unit? Does it talk all about the corporation? Where are the customers? The customers who don't care about your firm's history and can't for the life of them figure out if the products they're looking for are behind the button for the Enterprise Network Solutions Division, the Chicago Research Division, the Strategic Planning Division, the Applied Systems Division or the Business Development Division.

People coming to your home page should be able to tell at a glance which button they want to click on, because all of the buttons are about your customers - not about your company. You really want to find out how un-customer-centric your site is? Ask your mother-in-law to surf your site.

The next stop is your call center or help desk. It's time to stop thinking of this group as a cost center where the goal is to minimize the amount of time they spend with customers. Instead, turn these people into advocates.

They should be able to e-mail anybody in the company to get an answer or make a decision on behalf of the customer. Whether it's a bulletin board, a chat session, or voice over IP, these people should be customer advocates.

If you want to do this customer-centricity thing right, there's only one way: money. Compensation. It's working very well at Siebel Systems. Its stock didn't go from 25 to almost 200 in the past year because it's a dot-com start-up with a way-cool way to download brain waves. It did it by putting its customers first.

Director of Product Marketing Kevin Nix explained it to me this way: "Sure, salespeople get a commission on their sales, but their bonuses are tied to customer satisfaction." As a result, they're not just looking for the next sale. They're looking for the next prospect who is the most likely to be a happy customer. And then, they are motivated to follow up and make sure those customers stay happy.

Finally, and this is a tough one, make the customer part of your product development team. When Volkswagen started to design the new Bug, they didn't do it in the dark.
"We want you!" exclaimed their feedback page. "Your ideas, preferences, and constructive contributions will be evaluated and fed into the development process. So tell us all about your impressions and ideas for the new Beetle. We'll do our best!"
The result? Air-conditioning is standard and the ashtray and lighter are optional. Who'd have guessed? So think about how each and every decision you make is going to benefit your customers. Heck, I'll settle for every 10th decision. It's sure to be an improvement.

Jim Sterne can be reached at jsterne@targeting.com

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