The aim of this guide is to describe vital steps to improve customer relations.
The international management advisor Stephen Covey described one of the Seven Habits of Successful People as “starting with the end in mind”. This guide will help you to improve your relationships with clients to achieve mutual success and sustainable results. You will learn additional enabling processes which support results through two case studies drawn from actual assignments. This guide is based on the premise that client relations should achieve “customer delight” and not just “customer satisfaction”.
The failure of companies to achieve customer “delight” can often be attributed to a failure to keep in touch with changing customer needs. The larger the supplier the greater the difficulty in focusing the workforce to obtain high quality up to date information regarding client wants and needs. There are several challenges: the time taken from product design to market can fall behind changes in consumer requirements; the widening ranges in product and consumer segments are becoming more difficult to match; competitor speed to reproduce similar offerings is faster; consumers are looking for added value, and suppliers overlook relationship management skills.
The standard management practice of the supplier performing a survey by mail or telephone is unreliable; single source feedback may omit stakeholder input and client contacts may not wish to directly criticise their supplier contacts. External consultants can ensure objective design of survey questions, independent analysis of responses, and demonstrate to customers the supplier’s commitment for accuracy and integrity of feedback. Questions such as “How does supplier X compare to suppliers Y & Z” and “How responsive do you find Mr. X and Mrs Y?” are more likely to obtain frank feedback when asked by an independent third party.
The consultant should prepare before such contacts by reviewing the client file and checking the account managers understanding of client needs. The latter can include observing behaviour on the telephone and at meetings or presentations with the customer, to assess the level of rapport and their proficiency in surveying customer requirements. The consultant’s role can be described to customers openly so the customer recognises the involvement of a third party as an opportunity to strengthen relations with the supplier. This is particularly effective if there is potential conflict or mistrust between buyer and supplier which may reduce the frankness of feedback if the supplier directly asks for constructive criticism.
A few initial tips: when planning a customer visit, does the account manager prepare by obtaining the most recent relevant company press and news information? When meeting does the account manager clarify roles, objectives, and potential benefits of the meeting for all parties?
Network mapping the links between people, objectives, values and processes can also help clarify communication needs for co-working between supplier and buyer towards common goals with shared outcomes.
The following Case Study outlines the challenges, actions and outcomes of a consultancy project undertaken in an environment of restricted market opportunities and internal restructuring to reduce costs.
Case Study on business partnering and using values to add value
The purpose of this case study is to demonstrate how an already successful organisation has cost-effectively applied external development resource to further build on success in customer relationship management.
The company has been profitable for many years and, as specialists in their sector, they have been recognised as the fastest growing supplier in their field. The industry’s trade association found them to have the highest levels of customer satisfaction and their senior executive team were also recognised as the highest performers in their sector in independent surveys.
The external market is highly competitive with major suppliers bidding against each other and against clients own internal resourcing. There is increasing pressure on margins and higher customer expectations of service levels. Consequently success is dependent upon innovation in the supplier offer to maintain differentiation in the eyes of the customer.
Internally at the same time the supplier has to increase profit on assets employed by improving efficiency. Cost of sales represent a significant overhead and the regional sales team’s performance require more consistency. The sales director decides to review the structure of the salesforce in consultation with the top performing regional sales manager and with an external qualified consultant.
This review results in a restructuring of the salesforce, removing a regional management layer to save costs. All salespeople nationally now report directly to a national sales manager who wishes to undertake a skills audit to assess capacity for change. He enlists the support of the consultant who had previously undertaken the company’s Investors In People diagnosis. The audit involves field accompaniment and team workshops in which individuals create their own skills logs and review each others strengths and weaknesses.
The outcome is the identification of core competencies, the creation of a training plan, and agreement on the most appropriate management styles to apply for each individual salesperson. The workshops are co-designed and co-facilitated by both the sales manager and the consultant.
The workshop design includes open sharing and discussion of new goals and processes to ensure the teams understand and commit to a programme of change. One of the core organisation competences is “business partnering”. This is driven by the company’s explicit promotion as a “Business Partner” to every customer. The sales team want a more active demonstration to clients of the partnership approach and engage in a series of short workshops focussed on attitudinal and behavioural change in personal communications with customers. This includes analysing and linking personal styles with the values of the team and those of the customer.
The workshops on styles and values shows the team how to adapt and modify their communications both internally and externally to build stronger interpersonal relationships. This in turn results in more interdependent teamworking and greater trust enabling the manager to avoid a command-control style to one of supporting and facilitating change. The increased number of direct reports, instead of diminishing management effectiveness, has improved it.
More openness between individual salespeople and improvements in team-working has led to salespersons widening their portfolios offered to customers. This extra capacity of account managers has encouraged customers to spend more with their primary contacts increasing loyalty and renewals.
The translation of this concept of business partnering into active reality perceived by customers has created a unique factor to differentiate the supplier. Starting the process of change by addressing the fundamental values of individuals established a firm foundation and desire for change. Converting sets of values into identifiable behaviours and developing specific skills ensured new attitudes were reflected by new behaviours. These competencies then became visible to customers whose satisfaction was manifested with more business.
The sales manager commented “a planned and structured programme related to winning both hearts and minds has been key to a successful internal restructuring and external repositioning of our sales and customer account managers. Relationship management initiatives must start with the values of Business Partners”. As a result they increased profits by 22% despite a downturn in their industry. Their strategy of values-based relationship building has won them many new customers with recognised brand names who, like themselves, do business with people they trust.
In this case study the consultant role was to facilitate the strengthening of relations between buyers and suppliers without creating a dependency upon external consultancy. This was achieved by the consultant transferring knowledge of relationship management processes, and by training the supplier in interpersonal skills. In order to accomplish this, the consultant needed first to ensure that the suppliers internal support staff and managers had a customer focused attitude and an infrastructure of targets, systems and processes which helped the relationship managers in their client-facing work. This requires a more sophisticated consultancy intervention starting with top-level strategy, then addressing operations and activities down the reporting line. The next case study outlines the processes which the consultant applied in order to support effective client relations at the front line.
Case Study on the Design and Development of Customer Focused Processes
The managers had achieved significant success to date and were now a valued contributor to their corporate and shareholder objectives. In order to maintain and increase this level of contribution the senior management team wished to establish a stronger infrastructure with customer-focused process improvements. A brief initial survey of process strengths and weaknesses identified managers perceptions of the areas for greatest potential improvement. The survey report showed how issues could be addressed without detracting managers and staff from their necessary day to day activities.
Senior management recognised the fundamental need for their business to become more customer-focused integrating the internal and external supply chains. They wanted a coherent and integrated strategy to support company-wide goals, measures and accountabilities. This required the creation and communication of a business plan which was flexible enough to meet the fast changing nature of the market and which was to become a focus for team-working across the organisation to align the priorities of the organisation as a whole.
Line managers desired tools and techniques for problem analysis and prevention, and to install processes for more effectively managing their teams. This required their understanding of current and future business priorities and their ability to successfully manage change to proactively improve performance. The scope of external consulting support therefore covered two phases:
i) Strategic business planning for senior managers.
ii) Customer Focus Process to include design and development of customer processes & problem-solving tools and techniques for team-leaders.
The consultancy approach was underpinned by consultation around process change. This required
* Openness in sharing HOW AND WHY CHANGE with clients, explaining risks as well as benefits.
* Team-working with all stakeholders supporting company-wide ownership of the client objectives.
* Respect for people when proposing change that affects individuals at work.
* Innovation to ensure each challenge was examined afresh and solutions tailored accordingly.
* Achievement of assignments following agreed outcomes within clear terms of reference.
Each project had clear links to business objectives with measures and milestones to map progress. Ownership was kept internal with the external consultant positioned as facilitator and coach. Each project also followed the principles of the quality learning cycle: plan, do, review. This ensured active assessment of the business outcomes and benefits during assignments, which subsequently allowed for appropriate mid-term amendments to the programme.
Key Activities and Results for Strategic Business Planning
A strategic planning workshop was set up to determine organisation-wide business critical issues, key objectives, measures and accountability within the organisation. This was prefaced with a staff survey so that gaps between managers perceptions and staff were analysed and prioritised. Tactical planning workshops for functional managers converted strategic goals into departmental objectives and measures. This was supported with a customer survey to analyse current issues related to customer expectations. This phase required consulting support to:
* Assist in the design and rollout of a staff survey
* Assess the survey results and prepare the initial workshop
* Facilitate the strategic planning workshop
* Review the workshop and recommend the communication of outputs to line managers and staff.
Design and Development of Customer Focused Processes
This required to the following steps:
* defining the customer experience
* identifying process improvement or design requirements
* training in process improvement skills for front-line employees
* supplying a problem solving methodology
* demonstrating measurement capabilities in the process
* engaging leadership sponsorship and involvement in the initiative
* creating regular consistent feedback for employees so the programme benefits would be reinforced over time.
The consultant recognised the need to create cross-functional improvement teams to explore potential deficiencies in core processes. Employees were given the opportunity to master skills and tools for effective team-working, problem solving and process improvement driven by customer service standards. This transferred knowledge of key skills and efficiency tools whilst simultaneously mapping the customer experience and improving processes.
The following components of the project ensured successful implementation:
Reviews with senior managers; Implementation planning with process owners;
Project management reviews; and Team-leader workshops covering front line issues of:
* process improvement awareness
* team-working skills
* problem-solving tools & methods
* techniques for measuring process improvement
* action planning
* learning with employee and customer feedback
* training of staff with project reviews which included:
* understanding customer relationship strategy
* planning with project team members.
* training of process owners
The organisation development programme was supported by external consultancy with three components: clear deliverables to track results; an aligned methodology with enabling customer processes; experienced specialists in process improvement supported by a managing consultant to help plan and direct the programme, monitor and quality control.
Training Workshops included:
Awareness of customer relations so people could:
* identify their role in the improvement of customer relations
* recognise the moments of truth in customer activities
* apply best practice to improve processes with high positive impact on customers
* recognise the importance of winning support and involvement across functions.
This focused teams on the customer needs in order to ensure that resultant improvements were relevant to customers.
Team-briefings were held so staff could:
* understand the purpose of process improvement teams
* identify what makes teams successful
This gave the knowledge for people work on process improvement teams and identified what factors made the teams successful
Identifying cycles of service enabled staff to:
* identify the moments of truth that customers faced
* analyse processes from the customers point of view
This linked to the training to improve processes. It showed how to analyse customer experiences and mapped out each step of a customers experience from a customers point of view in order to improve a process.
Improving moments of truth allowed staff to:
* assess customer expectations in a cycle of service* identify factors that detracted from the customer relationship
* develop process improvements that could be implemented immediately
* plan how to recover when mistakes were made.
This focused on how to improve the customer experience. Some could be fixed immediately, while other improvements took more time. If a particular process was poor they could minimise the problem while a longer term solution was created. Recovery was a method for keeping customers feeling positive despite breakdowns in the core processes.
Customer feedback reviews were also held so people could:
* determine customer issues
* assess their level of importance
* picture what success looked like
* identify resources needed
* identify potential constraints
Teams started on their process improvement projects and found outcomes the customer wanted in future, including prioritising and proactively improving moments of truth. This included choosing the most critical moments to work on so people could decide which moments of truth to focus on. A danger in process improvement was the desire to do it all at once. Teams needed to assess which fixes had the most impact with a logical starting point so a quick success could be won. Staff could design points of contact that customer experienced and identify how to build a process to support the new point of contact beyond the reactive fixing of problem.
Staff were given clear advice about the goals critical to the success of the project. Measures were established for teams to compare the “before” state with results afterwards. Teams chose the most applicable measures for their process improvement project and where appropriate created new measures to ensure that their desired results were achieved.
Besides success measures they created a list of all the tasks involved in the process improvement work clarifying roles and responsibilities. Teams functioned best when each person on the team was clear on their role and goals. Team members agreed on their roles and assigned responsibility for the tasks they set in an action plan. At team meetings they established project deadlines and deliverables. This allowed the team to plan key dates and milestones as they worked through their process analysis and improvement. Checkpoints were set to monitor progress.
Process tools were applied after being supplied in a pocket-book showing Pareto Charts, Process Maps and Flowcharts, Cause and Effect Diagrams and Force Field Analysis.
A consultancy approach which builds customer relationship skills in line with customer service strategy is essential to the success of such projects. Aligning people and processes with external customer needs will ensure success, provided there is active and visible top level support and involvement with all the stakeholders. This requires a planned and structured approach with a high level of communications and training across all levels in an organisation.
In both case studies, the work was spread over six months to enable staff and management consultation to take place, allow change to be embedded, and to minimise direct consulting fees. Both projects also ensured the consultancy transferred ownership and skills to the supplier to allow future programmes to be managed with less external support.
These projects were delivered with explicit links to the principles of the international benchmark standard of Investors in Excellence, a framework of good practice for organisation development adapted from the Business Excellence Model. The standard supports external customer relations by enabling management to assess the effectiveness of their internal supply chains. It identifies blockages in corporate communications and guides employees into self-managed learning to support organisational goals. In both case studies the companies selected consultants who were accredited Investors in Excellence assessors to ensure alignment between internal back-office and external customer-facing changes.
This guide shows that consulting interventions in customer relations should consider people and process issues both inside and outside the organisation. Such interventions should be based on proven quality standards for managing change. And finally, the consultants should be adept at transferring skills with explicit processes, which, as Stephen Covey recommends, begin with the end in mind: What does the customer want and need?