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  • Customer-centric culture: what about management?

    28 November, 2016

    By Nicolas Longo

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    By Benoît Meyronin, Founder Partner of the Service Academy, Professor at the Grenoble School of Management and

    Science Consultant to the Foundation for research in management in the ServiceLab department

    The thrust of the article below explores the place of management in the development of customer-centric culture and how development is hindered in France – precisely because of managerial factors. It was inspired by discussions to prepare for the 36th annual conference of AMARC (a French association for the management of customer complaints). It basically covers the same material as the conference I gave there. My thanks to Marie-Louis Jullien (AMARC), Emmanuelle St-Jost (BNP Paribas Cardif and AMARC) and Benoit Aubert[1] (L. de Vinci University Center) for inviting me.

    The basic premise: culturally speaking, we are not ready

    Our organizations have been set up to design and operate/deliver “product offers” (manufactured goods, insurance policies, banking services, software, educational products etc.), based on an industrial model, onto which we have endeavored to graft the notion of the Customer, their Experience or Service. It thus ensues that customers are not at the center in cultural terms: they navigate Customer Care (who mainly take emergency action), Operations (who organize service deliveries and manage staff in contact with customers), IT (who set up the hardware and software infrastructure needed), Marketing (who think they know it all when it comes to customers and their needs yet still all too often operate top-down), HR (who handle training and pay policy), etc.

    Added to which, support functions are “naturally” far from the client, despite the fact that their very existence is precisely to serve those who serve customers – because de facto they have much impact on the customer experience AND workers in contact with customers – whether in Purchasing, IT, HR etc. IT, for example, is of core importance nowadays, yet is never set up according to a customer-centric mindset, and that’s putting it mildly.

    There is no one governance outline to bring order to this “system” the legitimacy of which is rooted in the sum of each person’s prerogatives. Customer experience and satisfaction is far from guiding the meaning behind the action (a fortiori shared). So there is no one place to govern service offers together, starting with design, handling dysfunctions further along, and above all thinking the customer experience (or journey) through from A-Z. It is the most important factor, yet comes across more as a lucky consequence resulting from the happy willingness of those involved.

    Corporate growth, never-ending reorganization, the multiplication of inspection systems, globalization, more and more information systems: things have gotten increasingly complex, to the point that the meaning has been lost: “What am I even doing here? What is the point? What is my vocation? ». We are all aware, deep down, that something is going on and the meaning of our work is no longer crystal clear. The further the worker is from the customer, the more they feel this.

    I would like to also add a phenomenon caused by the socio-psychology of business executives: “glamor” and “delight” have erased the meaning of reality. Customers often prove to have “trivial” expectations: LesEchos.fr recently published an article on bathrooms in the service industry, complete with expert opinions. Businesses all too often prefer the latest digital gadget that is generating buzz to simple, tangible projects aiming at actually improving customer experience without cost. This is indeed to be deplored, for the best ideas are often the simplest – even modest – like wishing commuters a “great weekend” as they get off their train of a Friday evening.

    I do also feel that organizations’ maturity with respect to management is pretty weak overall. In your firms, is management really acknowledged as the top lever for performance? Managerial support, the HR role, tools available to managers: are they developed properly? As a result, “technical” skills always take precedence over “soft skills” such as behavioral and managerial competencies – being a “good manager” is not enough in France!

    Against such a backdrop, how do you make any progress?

    First, you need to exercise more humility and admit, as a professional, that what is important to our clients is not what we deem essential: the basic service is their due, and while it goes without saying that it is to be delivered, it’s the extras that make the difference. So, when I go skiing, the slopes have been perfectly tended, yet I moan about the signposting. While in hospital, I may receive perfect medical care but I will moan about the quality of meals!

    Management needs to focus on a clear services policy in which various registers reflect various issues – handling what is due and standing out from the crowd with the customer experience. Staff must be clear about this and consider that technical expertise alone is no longer enough. And that no profession is more noble than others, given that everyone wields their influence on customer perceptions. It is difficult to admit, but it is crucial for everyone to find their place and for a truly customer-centric vision to take root. It’s not the devil hiding in the details, it’s the customer’s perception.

    The next step is to admit that the executives “are part of the problem”: a certain dose of energy is needed to get them to agree to customer- and service-oriented approaches and admit that they need to change their own way of doing things. As for “liberated” firms, the word needs to come from the top to show the importance of clients (for example, the CEO of a French subsidiary of a US Big Pharma firm made personal calls to certain disgruntled doctors further to a satisfaction survey). Executives are thus a priority “target” for this cultural transformation so they can take on board the jargon and vision they need to project. They need to be given assistance during this adaption phase so that they feel comfortable – if this is indeed the case – with dimensions such as behavior, emotions, relations, service culture etc. In managerial terms, they need to show proof of engagement towards the Employee Customer Profit Chain to attain credibility.

    We do also need to admit that we must prove that the quality of the relationship (and customer care) is profitable, that business and customer care go hand in hand, that customer care is an investment rather than a cost. I think it is necessary to promote a customer-centric culture that goes hand in hand with a “business” culture shared by all those working for the firm (not only the sales force): “Our business is my business”, should be the mantra of ALL workers. This is why I firmly believe in the intrapreneurship approach, helping everyone to act the entrepreneur, serving business development.

    I am thus deeply convinced that developing the service culture also hinges on liberating entrepreneurial energy for unexpected initiatives coming to fruition to serve improvements in offers and/or customer experience. But for me, this initiative-led culture (and the right to make mistakes which goes hand in hand with it) dovetails with business and the business culture: everyone needs to draw on the business spirit underpinning “service with a smile”. Sales development and the launching of new offers should not be separated from customer concerns, relations and experience. At the risk of repeating myself, these dual skills need to be tied in with each other in order to break away from recurrent dysfunctioning.

    “What if the firm were to break down barriers between Customer Care and the rest of the firm?” Suppose the Customer Care Department were to disappear?

    I’m borrowing the title of this paragraph from the philosopher Marc Grassin[2]: “What if customer relations broke free from its organizational straitjacket? (…) This requires a new vision for customer relations, opening up the dialogue with all involved: Marketing, Quality, CSR and Branding departments, as well as service providers and partners to search together for synergy, articulation and consistency”.

    Operational staff, HR, Purchasing and IT must all cooperate more, focusing on customers, their experience and needs – and those of the staff in contact with customers. That is some challenge! By reasserting the determination to put customers first, creating governance executives to shake up the silos, organizations must be able to find a way to giving meaning to all those working for the firm, even when they are not in close contact with clients.

    In fine, the primary vocation of the Customer Care Director is to represent the customers’ interests throughout the organization, for each entity to develop a “customer reflex”: as I joked at my conference on 16 October 2015, the vocation of the Customer Care Department is to no longer be needed! Logically, it’s the best sign of your success, when everyone has taken the thrust of your argument on board, at all levels, everywhere, all the time.

    Cause for hope: deploying the Employee Customer Profit Chain

    The principle behind the “Employee Customer Profit Chain” (Ditandy and Meyronin, 2007) is enjoying a ripple effect: it is being experimented at ski resorts, in specialist retail, in banks and in transport networks. “Employees first, customers second”, seems to be a new paradigm which is taking hold, and clearly it is indispensable for the introduction of management methods “compatible” with a strengthened customer-centric culture.

    At the 36th annual AMARC conference, I was happy to see how this expression had taken hold: representatives from major firms including MAIF, Norauto, Pierre & Vacances and IKEA attended the conference and all showed that they were convinced.

    Of course, saying and doing are always two different things. But considering that the quality of relations forged with your staff is a necessary (albeit not the only) condition for a different relationship quality with clients is already a first step. And it is undeniable that we have progressed in terms of collective awareness.

    [1]With whom I have just published a teen novel to introduce marketing to adolescents – Mission pop-corn, comment je suis devenue un as du marketing (Mission Popcorn, or how I became a marketing whiz), published by Graine 2.

    [2] In La relation client en question(s)? A la lumière des humanités pour ouvrir de nouvelles pistes, published further to the Pratiques & Prospective workshop, Institut Vaugirard, Institut Catholique de Paris – 2015.

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