Engaging your customers

Engaging your customers

The customer may not always be right, but remember that they are the customer.

A major provider of IT solutions to large corporations recently found it was losing contracts to smaller IT companies, despite its greater range of products and services. A client survey and internal analysis revealed that its customer relations were patchy, and they were often even hostile to the needs of clients through the company’s inability to adapt its product portfolio, and provide proactive sales and service facilities.

This left the company vulnerable to the more agile, hungry smaller companies. The company learned from bitter experience the value of being externally focussed. It's a lesson all organisations should heed, regardless of size.

IT has changed – again – and it’s important to look at the way people and organisations need to act differently if they are to succeed.

Social media and the pace at which customer needs change have shifted the relationship between IT businesses and their customers. The power of the customer is now is greater than it has ever been, through their ability to communicate their satisfaction — or not — to a broad audience almost instantaneously. Bad word-of-mouth, especially on social media, is a particularly devastating form of customer relations.

It can become a paradox for business — the focus is an internal metric about profit, market share or revenue, not about customer experiences, yet if customers vote with their feet then the business loses all out on all those other metrics anyway. It is time for organisations to decide whether to put the cart or the horse first.

The answer is blindingly obvious: Serve your customers and financial success will follow.

Think like your customer, not just about them

Organisations that have transformed themselves into great examples of customer engagement go beyond thinking about their customers, to thinking like their customers. That takes a change of mindset, and heart, on their part to understand the implications of their interaction with customers.

Be a connector, not a competitor

The CEO of a global systems integrator recently said to me that 10 years ago relationships were typically one-to-one, whereas now things are more complex: They have to serve their customers through choosing the best of what is out there and combining them to solve complex problems.

How can IT companies adapt to thrive in this new ecosystem where networking and collaboration are the keys to survival?

The key is to shift thinking from linear to networked. Providers should focus on becoming world-class connectors for their customers. This will require a different strategy, a different culture and even different people to make it work.

Be the trusted advisor, not the seller

IT is clearly as an enabler to help organisations and people change, adapt and innovate. Many technology firms need to work more closely with their clients to genuinely understand what it is they wish to achieve so they can make their products and services more effective. They struggle to make the transition from product to solution.

Here lies an opportunity for raising the bar in serving customers: The shift from product seller to trusted advisor. If firms, and the people in them, can become business consultants who can understand a client’s business climate and direction, and propose a plan for business development they will gain a clear advantage over the 'widget seller' of old.

Be front to back, not top-down

There is a danger that you become complex and slow through increased connections and the provision of business-focused solutions. There can sometimes be too many contact points between two organisations, each of which has little communication with the others.

With numerous agents selling and supporting different facets of the overall product or service, the client can be confused, and not realise the full potential of what may otherwise be an excellent solution. Through this kind of inefficiency and lack of co-ordination, it can reach the point where the customer feels pestered rather than supported.

How can organisations maintain simplicity and speed of smaller agile organisations?

It is often in the personal engagement between the staff of provider and customer that operating efficiencies can be found, and it is the people closest to the customer who can suggest ways of streamlining clunky or over-engineered service.

That builds employee engagement and retention, as well as customer satisfaction and retention. Companies need to become driven from front to back, not directed from top down.

At a time when every business has to learn to do more with less and streamline every facet of its operations, true customer engagement can deliver real rewards. It doesn’t take a large investment; it just means unlocking the resources you already have to treat the customer as we ourselves would like to be treated.

Pia Lee is CEO at LIW, a global leadership consultancy.

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