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Craig Cochran

Quality Insider

Leadership Drives Customer Focus

Published: Monday, January 2, 2006 - 23:00

Customer focus doesn’t evolve on its own. It’s carefully cultivated over time through a variety of processes. At the forefront of this effort is leadership. The organization’s leadership has the primary responsibility of making every decision and every action based on customer focus. Customer focus can’t be relegated to lower levels in the organization. It must start at the top and be regularly refreshed from the top. When organizations fail to achieve customer focus, it’s usually because leadership was never properly engaged in the process. In other words, top management failed to lead. Leadership must embrace a number of realities related to customer focus. These are fundamentals that should be a priority in each top manager’s to-do list. Following is an examination of each fundamental and an analysis of how top management can deliver on one of its most important duties: driving customer focus.

Customer focus is the leadership’s responsibility
A couple of years ago, I was speaking to a company president about a problem his firm was having with a critical customer complaint. Root cause analysis pointed to confusion about customer specifications in the Finishing Department. The liability to the company was almost a million dollars. As expected, the president was very upset about the whole affair.

“Our Finishing personnel failed the customer,” the president said. “It’s as simple as that.”
He became even more upset when I told him he was the one who had failed the customer.

All roads lead back to top management when the issue is customer focus. An organization’s leadership sets the tone for everything that takes place—the good, the bad and the ugly. Sure, top management didn’t personally botch the customers’ orders, but their actions or lack of actions allowed others to botch the order.

Effective leadership means people are following top managers. They may follow the leader to places they didn’t intend or expect, so whatever top management focuses on is of the utmost importance. When leaders focus on issues that aren’t related to their customers—turf battles, internal politics, or ego gratification, for example—everyone else becomes focused on those issues as well. The leader’s interests are powerful beacons for the organization.

Following are a few common customer service problems and how they relate to leadership:

Customers disgusted by attitude of employees: Attitude is a function of the employee’s environment. If the environment is cynical, negative or demeaning, it should be no surprise that employees have bad attitudes. Top management has the single biggest influence on the organization’s environment, which means they also have the single biggest influence on attitude. Bad attitude equals poor leadership.

A poorly trained employee makes a mistake: Training is one of the key processes for driving customer requirements and expectations awareness. Training also happens to be one of the least respected processes within organizations because it’s a soft process, one that’s hard to connect to return on investment. Leadership often views training as something that’s nice to do when time allows, but not necessarily essential. It can be trimmed or cut entirely when business conditions dictate. Poorly trained employees typically indicate that leadership isn’t dedicated to improving and growing the organization over the long term.
A customer experiences repeated problems: Repetitive problems that affect the customer are the cancers of modern organizations. The irony is that most customers really don’t mind isolated problems, errors and mishaps. Sure, they’d prefer a perfect transaction , but most people tolerate a problem here or there.

This tolerance doesn’t extend to repeated problems. One of top management’s most critical missions is to mobilize and focus the organization when threats appear on the horizon. Customer complaints should be considered code red threats. When customers experience repeated problems, top management has failed to make everyone focus on the organization’s mission statement.

These are a few potential problems that have their root causes in leadership. Top management must demonstrate clear customer focus in every job it carries out. Once top managers achieve focus, they must communicate it.

Communicating customer focus is leadership’s no.1 job

I’ve often heard of leaders being referred to as the mouthpieces of organizations. This characterization is quite true. Leaders spend a considerable amount of their time communicating one thing or another. The topics of communication may cover a wide range of issues, strategic directions, opportunities, uncertainties and achievements, but customers are almost never mentioned when. they certainly should be. In fact, customers should be the most discussed subject by a leader.
Modern organizations have countless opportunities for communication, such as telephone, e-mail, memos, meetings, teleconferences and chat rooms. Needless to say, when it comes to communication, the problem is typically content, not the medium. Following is a list of a few customer-focus topics that leadership can highlight in their communication:

Customer service successes: Where has the organization excelled for the customer? Who was involved? What specific actions were taken? What was the customer’s reaction? In many organizations, top management is far removed from customer-service successes, so leaders must re-engage and discuss these topics.

Best practices to be adopted: Customer-service success is nice, but if success languishes in isolation the organization misses a huge opportunity for growth. Leadership should clearly state how the exceptional efforts of others can be emulated throughout the organization. Remember, leaders are supposed to lead. The direction they lead in doesn’t have to come from their own ideas. Best practices will come from a wide variety of personnel, but top management must be on the front line of institutionalizing the best practices for the benefit of the entire organization.

Where the organization has failed: Smart organizations learn from their mistakes. Leadership should be honest and open about mistakes the organization has made and outline clear actions that’ll remove the causes of failure. There’s no need for managers to personally communicate every single customer-service mistake the organization has made, but the critical mistakes need to be explained. This highlights top managers’ significance and captures everybody’s attention.
Where customer expectations are moving: Nothing in life is static. Customer expectations are continually evolving, sometimes in surprising directions. Do we know where they are headed? We certainly should, and top management should share the general direction with everyone. If the entire organization is familiar with where customer expectations are moving, they’ll be better prepared to fulfill these expectations. Sometimes they even come up with innovative ways to address the new or altered expectations. However, they can’t address them if they don’t know them.

Customer focus should be near the top of the agenda every time leadership communicates with the organization.

Customer focus is linked to employee focus
I taught a course a few years back at the Holiday Inn in Cartersville, Georgia. The hotel was not anything particularly special in terms of its amenities, but the staff absolutely bent over backwards to make our event a success. They did things that I never would have even thought about doing, including providing supplies for our course that we might have forgotten. At every turn, I was amazed by the complete customer focus of everyone I encountered.

After the course was finished, I met with the manager of the hotel to find out his secret. How did he get all his employees to have such focus on their customers?

“I focus on my employees,” he told me, “And that allows them to focus on the customer.”
I didn’t understand. What did he mean by focusing on employees? I hadn’t noticed him standing around watching anybody. What kind of surveillance was he running?
“I’m not watching anybody,” he explained. “I’ve never had to watch anybody in all the time I’ve been the manager here. All I do is focus on what my people need to do their job. I focus on their tools, training and skills. I even get to know their families, interests, personal problems. They understand that I care about them, but they also understand that their jobs are to serve the customer. The customer is number one and my employees are a close second.”

The idea of “focusing on your employees” doesn’t provide much guidance. Following is a list of what leadership should do to focus on their employees and thus ensure that employees focus on the customer:

Provide the tools: Find out first-hand what your employees need for their jobs. Observe them doing their jobs and think about what could make it easier and more effective for them. Discuss these resources with the employees and get agreement on their priority. Don’t make any big promises, but make it clear that you intend to find a way to provide the resources. Then make it happen.

Develop the people: It’s a natural human trait to want to get better, smarter and more skillful. Take advantage of this trait. Determine the specific competencies that’ll help your employees better serve the customer. Consider the full range of competency-building activities: training, education, skill building, mentoring, role playing and new work experiences. Make the improvement of your employees a strategic initiative.

Share information: Another natural human trait is curiosity. Curiosity is even stronger than the need for self-improvement in most people. People want to know the reason why; they want to acquire knowledge. The first step to acquiring knowledge is receiving information. A leader should share as much information as possible. Everyone is on the same team, right? So everyone needs abundant information about the direction and performance of the organization, especially in relation to satisfying customers.

Take a real interest: The job of a leader isn’t to get people to like you. It’s to lead. Taking a real interest in your people facilitates leadership because you begin to understand what makes them tick. Is it fishing or chess? Is it singing or football? This knowledge helps you gain insights into their psyches, which enables you to better motivate your employees and communicate with them.

Hire the right people: Some people are simply more customer oriented than others. A leader should always be on the lookout for people who like to take charge and make customer satisfaction their personal responsibility. Not everyone can be a customer service star, but all employees should be able to internalize the customer experience and strive to serve in the way they’d want to be served. Certain personality types should probably be avoided, especially for those jobs that come in direct or indirect contact with customers. These include people who are self-centered, grandiose, cynical, withdrawn, negative, angry, inwardly focused and suspicious. It doesn’t take a perceptive leader very long to pick up on these attributes. Basically, it can be as simple as asking yourself the honest question, “Is this someone I would want serving me?”
Keep a sense of humor: A leader can’t be deadly serious all the time. Leaders must be willing to laugh at themselves and the situations that their organization faces. This makes the organization a more human and livable place and it makes employees happier to be there. This in turn facilitates better customer service, because miserable, humorless employees can think of nothing more than going home—certainly not satisfying customers.

Leaders must drive customer focus in everything they do. It can’t be an afterthought or an extracurricular activity; it’s a core duty for top management. When leadership understands and acts on this, the organization stands a reasonable chance of evolving into a truly customer-focused enterprise.


About The Author

Craig Cochran’s picture

Craig Cochran

Craig Cochran is a project manager with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. Cochran is the author of The Seven Lessons: Management Tools for Success; Problem Solving in Plain English; ISO 9001 in Plain English; Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques, and Formulas for Success; The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to the Bottom Line; and Becoming a Customer-Focused Organization, all available from Paton Professional. His most recent book is ISO 9001:2015 in Plain English, also available from Paton Professional.