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Martin Wales

[February 4, 2002]

Customer Catcher

By Martin Wales

Winning And Keeping Customers Requires Leadership

Your desire to win more customers and keep them longer is directly affected by your organization's capability to build quality relationships and maintain them. Winning the business through marketing and salesmanship is a relatively exciting time with a lot of money and energy invested. It is not uncommon to have executive involvement at this point, and several face-to-face meetings. Execs provide leadership and direction to build a successful account strategy and therefore invest their valuable time to close the deal.

You win the business and the contract is signed. Now comes the hard part. You deliver your product or service and your new client becomes another record in your customer database. Over time, the phone becomes the primary means of contact between you and your customer. This is where most companies begin to fail in maintaining their hard-won relationship. The challenge increases as more people become involved, too. One person might have made the actual buying decision, but then possibly hundreds of that company's employees become your "customers" as well. They all have varied perceptions, expectations, and demands.

In addition, it often seems that the longer a company is the customer of another, the further down the "importance chain" they are placed. There is now limited access to high-level decision makers, or no executive involvement at all. Much less money is spent on keeping accounts than it took to get them. This is fine in concept, and actually good business: Customer acquisition is a very expensive activity. However, winning a customer doesn't mean less attention, effort, or energy is required for each instance of customer interaction after the contract is signed.

The customer relationship management (CRM) industry has evolved to address these issues. (I suggest dropping the "management" part just to make it more personal, at least for conversation.) Much discussion and time are spent on figuring out how to provide a superior experience for customers. The problem is mainly that -- it is all talk. Does it make it to the actual customer interaction? Why do customers feel that service is in continual decline? Generally, it is because most customer relationships  lacks two key ingredients: leadership and execution. And the latter cannot occur without the former.

Attention is primarily focused on improving the skills of the people who are on the front line with customers, like call center and help desk agents. By default, the responsibility also seems to land on the agents' shoulders... or their managers'. This is wrong. An executive-level stakeholder should be directly involved beyond having the call center or help desk as a line item on their budget.

Leadership means recognizing the needs of the customer relationship team; providing access to the proper resources (such as modern technologies); acting as a champion in the face of budget cuts; presenting an example of the commitment to and the attitude of customer care; and making decisions when required, whether they are easy or not. Leadership also has to protect and support its employees against unruly and overly demanding customers.

Delivering an extraordinary level of customer service is only possible with an extraordinary leadership effort. Customer service is the focal point and daily interaction that ultimately leads to having extended customer relationships and their resulting profits.

John McDonald, president of MBC Solutions, strongly believes that leadership is the key to customer relationships and that the leader involved should actually be the CEO. As an experienced CRM specialist, he has overseen many successful implementations and knows that, "A CEO-sponsored customer relationship project has an 85 percent better chance of being a success than if the project is handed off to a department or senior level manager."

McDonald makes a number of points with respect to implementing a customer relationship program for your business:

  • Leadership drives the vitality and responsiveness of the individuals connected to the project.
  • Top-level sponsorship incorporates the benefits of customer relationships into the organization's culture.
  • A CEO can rally disparate departments and divisions around a common project and link them together... this unification is a foundation for solid customer relationships.

At MBC Solutions, they believe: "If the CEO doesn't buy into the project, shelve it until the lights turn on. This will happen eventually. Probably when one of his biggest competitors start taking business away from him because they implemented a CRM solution."

Effective and well-executed customer relationship management results in positive customer relationships and customer loyalty. I recently heard someone define customer loyalty as "Sticking around until something better comes along." Leadership is a commitment to and a strong belief in superior customer satisfaction -- and this is the ingredient most lacking where customer loyalty is eroding. If you have hundreds or even thousands of customers, it will always be a challenge to keep them all happy. Is it possible? Looking at those considered great leaders in history, it seems that a common test of their leadership was to provide hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. So…onwards and upwards!

Martin Wales, the Customer Catcher, is a business development specialist helping companies win and keep more business with a focus on CRM. He is a technology-marketing specialist, speaker, and facilitator focused on maximum results with minimum risk using a company's existing resources. Contact him at martin@customercatcher.com.

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