Are customers really your number ONE priority?

“Our highest priority is our customers…
... except when it is hard, or unprofitable or we’re busy.”

So says Dilbert, the cartoon creation of Scott Adams. [all copyright and trademarks acknowledged :) ]

Every time I read this statement, I quiver. It’s funny; it’s clever… and, in my experience, so true it hurts.

We all understand that businesses fundamentally exist to solve customer problems. We all know that customer orders pay our wages and salaries… and often bonuses. We get it.

Even “The Customer is King” phrase is a cliché now. Come on... is the customer at the front of your mind, day in, day out? Genuinely? Honestly? Seriously?

The evidence is not very encouraging.

In their book, Value-ology, the authors state that over half the companies in the Fortune 500 in 2000 are no longer on the list in 2017. Just seventeen years later. Some went bust, others merged or were acquired or replaced by more agile and better-performing companies. The most significant contributing factor in success or failure? “Staying in tune with what your customers value”.

But, as Dilbert says...

"It's hard"
It is. Having conversations with customers about price is hard enough, let alone talking about the potential value you offer them. It requires focus, effort and resilience. It needs to be formalised within your business to make it happen regularly. The annual customer satisfaction survey is no longer enough.

Over recent years, the ‘customer experience’ role has become more prevalent within businesses. If it’s essential, give someone the responsibility for it; but do they know if their business leaders, and therefore human and financial resources, truly support it?

It reminds me of a time many, many years ago when a colleague suggested a new customer programme, only be told that they could go ahead, “so long as it doesn’t change the status quo”.

Also, who owns the customer relationship? New business sales, account management, customer care, everyone? In many businesses, these conversations never take place. The ‘silo’ mentality creeps in, and the customer relationship gets pushed back and forward between departments, generally with a bucket load of blame thrown in.

“It’s unprofitable”
Knowing the customers well also costs money. It requires time, resources and often business change. Is Customer Care a fundamental part of the value chain or just a sunk cost handling customers’ complaints. When budgets are cut, it’s often marketing first, training second and customer care third. The department is often seen as a sign of failure, rather than a driver of value.


“We’re busy”
Often trying to pour more prospects into the top of the sales funnel just as customers fall out of the bottom of it. Everyone acknowledges it costs far more to find new customers than keep them, but still, we’re too busy ‘with work’ to put the customers first.

I also think there is fear around customers. Not only when they are unhappy, but even when they like you! Yes, you might get stressed having a problematic call with an angry customer, but you might get even more stressed if the customer actually wants to place more business with you. With the budget’s tight, more sales could mean more work, often with fewer resources. Nightmare!

I was mulling over these ideas when, by sheer coincidence, I met with Remeny Armitage, who is an expert in the customer experience. I asked her what she thought.

“David, The first and most important bit of advice I give to any client I give is to treat your customer as a human being. Speak to them, engage with them as a person – whether it’s on the phone or in person. Don’t just rely on technology to support you. If you get to know your customers as people, you are taking the first steps to build a better relationship with them. This, in turn, will lead to more business.

Fundamentally, direct human communication works far better than remote interactions such as emails, texts or online surveys. If you speak to your customers, you can get some incredibly valuable intelligence. They will tell you how they feel, how happy (or unhappy they are), ways to improve the way you do things for them and maybe useful snippets of information about the business as a whole. The value of this information can be amazing on so many levels.

The evidence is clear. According to Fred Reichheld, author of The Loyalty Effect,

‘A 5% increase in customer retention can lead to a 25% to 100% increase in profits for your company, whether it be through upsells, repurchases, or even referrals.’

Happy customers = happy profits.

But it all needs to be built into the way the company operates too. By implementing a customer care process, so you regularly speak to a sample of your customers, from those that love you to those that don’t, you can get a good understanding of what you are doing right or, perhaps more importantly, wrong.

Keep doing more of the good stuff and excel. And, yes, for those clients that aren’t 100% happy, embrace their feedback! Listen to their comments and suggestions for improvements. The very fact that they gave you feedback, even if you might not want to hear it, shows they care about the relationship. They want it to work. They want it to work with you. Treat negative feedback as incredibly valuable. If one person says it, there is probably another ten who think it!

Likewise, when you speak to lots of clients, you should start to get a sense of the common themes that your customers feel about your service or product. If this is the case, address them directly and improve the way you service them. Give your customers the experience they deserve. What’s to lose?

According to the consultants, PwC,

“42% of clients would pay more for a friendly, welcoming experience.”
Don’t underestimate the importance of ensuring you have a good relationship with your clients.

Oh… and if you do conduct online surveys, make sure you ask a selection of quantitative questions (ratings/rankings/satisfaction levels etc.) but, most importantly, ask for unscripted feedback, to get a more in-depth and qualitative response. Pick a selection of customers who are not so happy and talk to them, use it as an opportunity to turn things around. Many times these unhappy customers won’t respond to an online survey so your survey results may give you the wrong impression that everything is OK… whereas the reality is very different. Listen to their issues, implement the changes that might be needed to make the customers happy and then tell them what you’ve done.

Everyone likes to be heard; they love it even more if they’re heard, and then something gets done! Actions speak louder than words; all the time, every time.

Finally, as Dilbert cleverly identifies, we’re always busy. Lack of time is still an issue with most businesses. If you have a successful company, you should have lots of clients who want your attention; which is as it should be! But what happens to your clients when you finish a project? Do the account managers stay in touch with all their existing clients and their previous clients? In some cases, yes. But, in many, time does not allow the supposed ‘luxury’ of staying in touch with past clients. However, customer engagement must be as an essential part of business development and marketing. It’s not a luxury; it’s a necessity!

Research by Marketing Metrics shows...

“The probability of selling to an existing customer is 60–70%. The probability of selling to a new prospect is 5-20%."

By putting a client care process into place with regular touchpoints, you can significantly improve your relationships with your clients. With effort, this will ensure loyalty, repeat business and referrals.”

Thanks, Remeny.

So, Dilbert, remember, it’s all about priorities. Putting customers genuinely at the heart of your business is worth all the effort, time and money. Embrace good feedback but embrace bad feedback even more. Understand what your customers value. Ask them why they bought from you and what they like about your customer service, not just in facts and figures but how it makes them feel.

Be human.