July 12, 2010

Where's The Customer? - Article by Sanjay Anandaram

This article appeared originally in The Financial Express July 2010 Issue. Reproduced with permission from the author.

The long and detailed presentations were going well. The young CEO was passionately outlining the company’s plans to the board. The rest of the management team was also present and there were several interjections and contributions by them on their functional areas and areas of expertise: Process improvements, employee training and retention, product design, engineering, customer support were earnestly discussed. Terms like efficiency, productivity and growth rates were thrown around. Everything seemed to be going as well as possible till someone asked “All this is fine, but where’s the customer in all of this?” None of the presentations talked of how the customer would be better served by the elaborate discussions on processes and systems.


All too often, companies become obsessed with themselves and become inward looking. Are the planned processes, systems and procedures going to help deliver faster, cheaper, better service and products to customers or are they designed only to help the company manage its internal issues? Does the engineering team just build “cool” and technologically advanced products or do they build less advanced products with features that customers actually care about, value and use? Is the customer service team organized to deliver the best customer service or is it organized keeping the company’s structure and people (& internal politics?!) in mind? Customers don’t buy technology, they buy solutions. They don’t care about the company’s customer service promises or policies, they want the best (and cheapest) experience when they email or call the company with a problem. Is the company seeing the world from a customer’s view point and then devising solutions to deal with real pain points? Such “moments of truth” are what determine the company’s customer centricity.


A fast food company devised an elaborate supply chain and delivery system in order to prepare and deliver food to its customers in the shortest possible time. They also invested in a state of the art customer interaction system that ensured that customers were kept waiting for a minimum period and that repeat customers were recognized by personalized greetings and offers. Yet the company struggled to gain customers. Because all their elaborate planning didn’t take into account that the taste of the food was what mattered the most and therefore had to really appeal to customers. Customers weren’t willing to trade food quality of food for quicker delivery and swifter customer service. Therefore, understanding what customers value and how much of it they value is crucial.


So where does a company go to find out and understand what customers really want? Fortunately, in today’s day and age, it is a lot easier what with various social media and tools available. While observing implicit and explicit behaviours on the internet is invaluable, it is important that everyone in the company meet customers and partners. Does the company have a system that forces everyone, especially those at the top, to travel and interact with customers? Is there a system for customer opinions and feedback to be collected, collated, analysed and acted upon? Sales people are usually in the forefront of customer interaction and their experiences and learnings can be very useful. Does the company, therefore, have a system for interacting with sales people and understanding what customers are really saying about its products and services? Does the company have a way to observe how users buy, interact with and use its products and services? This observation can be very useful to the company in designing products and services. Does, for example, the company have a “customer voices” channel (web, phone, email) to allow customers to suggest new features and improvements to the company’s existing offerings? A startup I know well has recently started this channel in order to “listen and learn” from its customers.


As can be seen, while it is easy to make grand proclamations of being a customer-centric organization, it is all too easy to reduce the customer to an after-thought, if not totally ignore him/her, by excessively focusing inwards. In this regard, it is useful to remember this saying by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi:


A customer is the most important visitor on our premises, he is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.

Sanjay Anandaram is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India; He brings close to two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture investor, faculty member, advisor and mentor. He’s involved with Nasscom, TiE, IIM-Bangalore, and INSEAD business school in driving entrepreneurship. He can be reached at sanjay@jumpstartup.net. The views expressed here are his own.