Customer is King?

I don’t think there is any argument that keeping a customer happy and providing the best possible service will provide for a fruitful and long-term relationship. It goes without saying that it’s generally easier to sustain existing relationships and keep customers happy that to attract new customers.
However, the perception of ‘Customer is King’ is fraught with danger for service providers and customers alike, and should not be confused with ‘Providing good Customer Service’.

Let me explain with 5 examples.

1. The customer is always right!

This often may be the truth and, lets face it, it stands to reason that a customer is expected to understand their business and business requirements far better than the service provider, right?
Making this assumption is depriving your customers of the quality advice that a service provider should be expected to provide. Probing and challenging are key skills that support the customer in ensuring the articulation of a customers understanding is appropriately conveyed and also ensures they are getting expert advice on all aspects of their requirements.

Thought: A service provider has a choice… do as you are told and become an engineering machine or provide the strategic and game changing advice to become a strategic partner. Neither is necessarily wrong but each attract a different relationship, with one making the assumption that the customer is always right and the latter always questioning whether the customer has really thought of all the possibilities.

2. Why do I need to speak to anyone else when I am connected to the CXOs.

The question is not one of seniority or position it’s really about what it is that a service provider is trying to achieve.
Granted that the future strategic direction of an organisation will be driven by the senior powers, but does that mean they always know what is going on at the detailed level within a business. Making this assumption is once again likely to lead service provides into problems and customers receiving inadequate solutions that haven’t really been mapped against the low level processes. Networking at all levels should be seen as a positive step and not one that will potentially upset a Senior Manager, nor should there be a perception of ‘why do I need to speak to someone who is not a decision maker’. Whereas the senior management team may provide strategic direction, the person doing the job day in day out will provide immense insight into the current process and potential improvements. Quite often certain inefficiencies, unnecessary manual effort, duplication of tasks will not have filtered through to the senior management team and an impending change is a good opportunity for the workforce and the management team alike to attract further benefits.

Thought: Don’t judge the strength of your network just based on senior relationships, provide value to customers by providing insight from their own employees to allow customers to gain the most value.

3. If I lose my customers I don’t have a business.

Indeed, quite obvious. But if you assume the customer is king and to toe the party line this is a sure fire way of losing a customer if you miss key detail or failed to provide differentiating value. This is quite often the case where customers need to choose, for example, between an on-shore and off-shore model. Off-shoring can be a great cog for churning out results at a lower cost but it often ends up costing a customer more in the long run with volume of resources rather than quality resources, and lacking the real face time value.
The question to really ask is what is the role you are playing for the customer and is that all that the customer is looking for. Is there an expectation to go beyond just being told what to do, provide future thinking advice and challenging what you hear.
Being a service provider that just delivers on what is requested without consultation is generally going to end up in a price war with other organisations with delivery being fixed price. Providing a consultative edge will provide a differentiation that is more likely to retain a customer and certainly from a customers perspective justifies the rationale for wanting to stay with a partner with then cost not being the only factor.

Thought: The customer is king approach may in the short-term feel like its value add and a great model but is often short lived. Do you prefer to be passive and let a customer come to you if they think you may have something to offer, or active in pushing out ideas to customers in which case it creates a longer-term strategic partnership?

4. I won’t go to the customer with a change request, as it will damage the relationship.

Wrong! This is one of the biggest evils in failed deliveries and relationship breakdowns. It is not unreasonable to assume that a customer may have made a mistake in the definition, or is demanding something new, any more than the service provide made a mistake in defining the solution.
The simple rule here is it’s in the service provider and customers interest to ensure there is a change request for all changes to scope, cost, quality and timeline. Yes, even if there is no cost or timeline impact. Why? You are doing yourself and the customer an injustice by not disclosing all the facts in relation to a change. The customer has a right to see any deviations and approve them so they don’t come back and bite later. A good Project Manager on the customer side will also acknowledge this and will have no issues with ensuring all facts have been considered and brought to the table for a proper discussion in a timely manner, and with the right senior authorities. Retrospective change requests will often be a cause for project slippage on time and cost and more severely in some cases a relationship breakdown.

Thought: Agree the change control process at the Steering Group, including the rationale for ensuring it is strictly followed, to avoid conflicts down the line. Whether it’s the service provider that makes a mistake, or it’s been driven by the customer, admission is king. Openness is the key to success.

5. Provide good customer service

Purposely left to the end, as I didn’t want the points above to confuse this. All the points above are totally valid and in themselves can go a long way to providing not just good but great customer service. However, assuming the ‘customer is king’ is not conducive to providing a great customer service.
The customer is indeed very important and a critical component to the survival of any business, but they deserve a great deal of respect, attention and professional advice which is where the focus should be placed rather than a passive acceptance against customer demands.
To provide great customer service focus on elements such as:

  • Differentiating advice providing the customer with real competitive edge.
  • Providing strategic advice on tangible benefits around ROI.
  • Delivering in line with expectations with clear change policies for deviations.
  • Timely and accurate communications.
  • Total transparency on the commercial position at any point in time. Don’t assume the customer can just make funds miraculously available retrospectively, yet also ensure commercials are clearly approved where necessary.
  • Manage the account not just the projects. Servicing the customer appropriately is a sure fire way of ensuring benefits to all parties.
  • Be open about the benefits to both parties.
  • Be prepared to challenge and be open to challenge.

Thought: Demonstrate value to customers in order to demand respect. Make cost become the smaller element to partner selection. Customers understand and are prepared to pay for quality resources, extensively fighting down cost for ‘Quality’ resources is not in the interest of customers any more than service providers since it will reduce the ability to provide the best resources whilst impacting performance due to the negative undercurrent.

So to summarise, focus on customer service and don’t worry about ‘Customer is King’ messaging. Customer and service providers alike will get the best out of a relationship with transparency and being open to challenge. Both consultancies and agencies have their respective space and the value they bring to a customer. As a service provider always be clear about the value you are able to provide so you are not unfairly judged by a customer, and it’s clear what the boundaries are for the services you are able to provide. Don’t pretend to be something you are not, and don’t pretend to offer something you are unable to service.
Run a successful partnership by offering what you are good at, and delivering with a vision of obtaining a great case study at the end of the engagement.