Six Sigma
Last Word


Performance Improvement
H. James Harrington

Looking Down at the Customer

Get out of your tower and into the street..

I'm writing this column in my creativity corner--on an airplane flying from San Francisco to San Jose. Setting beside me is Tim Koogle, chairman and CEO of Yahoo! Inc. He is a handsome man with sharp features, soft blue eyes and long wavy black hair that's now turning to gray. He leaves you with a feeling that he's someone you would like to know.

 Koogle has created a miracle in the last five years. Under his leadership, Yahoo has grown from a handful of employees to more than 32,000 worldwide--with revenue per employee at approximately $400,000 per year. This is an organization in which customer satisfaction is important to the executive team. Koogle personally answers e-mail from customers and takes pleasure at their surprise when the customers realize that the man at the top took the time to communicate directly with them. Yahoo's approach, putting the customer first, has played a big part in its meteoric success.

 It seems like every time I look at a new company that's outperforming the pack of established organizations, I discover it's guided by an individual who has a personal relationship with his or her customers. The problem that many established organizations have is that, as they grow, they start building taller buildings, putting the CEO and the COO on the top floor. When you look down out of the 43rd floor window at the real people (i.e., customers) on the sidewalks below, they look like little more than ants running in a well-defined pattern. At that level, it's easy to forget that the company is held together by all of the little people who paid for the big windows, big desks and big boardrooms. Without us little people, the executives don't get paid. Sure, from their cathedrals in the clouds, it looks like we're all regimented. But, in truth, we're not. We're all individuals with individual needs, requirements and desires. It may look like there's one uniform pattern going on below, but in reality there are millions of individual scenarios that combine and separate continuously.

 The only way CEOs can really understand their customers is to spend time out on the street, moving within the crowds and listening to their beat. Today--more than ever before--everyone in an organization, and especially the leaders, have to know and understand the beat of the customer. The leaders shouldn't depend upon the second-hand information they get from sales, marketing, public relations or service personnel. They need to be "in the thick of it" to have the required understanding. They need to get out of the black-tie meeting where champagne is served and stop in the local pub for a beer. The head of Harley-Davidson riding his bike is a good example: What would it say if you built motorcycles for a living and rode to work in a Rolls-Royce?

Table 1: Customer Focus

 CEOs like to say that their companies make the customer "number one" and that their organizations are customer-focused. It's been said that the pen is mightier than the sword, but few acknowledge that deeds are mightier still. All of the proclamations that come out of the executive office mean nothing; it's action that counts. Most executives give lip service to customer relations, and that's as far as it goes. Every vice president, division head and middle manager should be required to spend time talking with or serving the organization's customers. The mayor of every city should spend one day a month riding in a police car. Louis Gerstner, chairman and CEO of IBM, should spend one day a month responding to customer complaints. Mike Gunn, American Airlines' executive vice president for marketing and planning, should have to eat the food he feeds to weary travelers. John Smith Jr., the CEO of General Motors, should spend one day a month at a dealer's repair shop, seeing what fails and talking to the customers. Every CEO, COO, vice president and board member should be required to spend four hours of his or her time each month behind the service desk.

 Do you think your organization is customer-focused? Well, if the customer is truly "number one," the customer should be the most important thing in your business. And that means your leaders should be spending more time working with the customers than they spend on financial matters. Consider where your leaders spend most of their time. Measure the percentage of time your executive committee spends with the organization's customers listening to their complaints and understanding their needs. Table 1 illustrates time spent with customers as a measure of customer focus.

 What percentage of the time do your executive committee members spend collecting information directly from your organization's customers? Let me know. I particularly want to hear from the best-in-class organizations.


About the author

 H. James Harrington is COO of Systemcorp, an Internet-software development company. He has more than 45 years of experience as a quality professional and is the author of 20 books. E-mail Harrington at jharrington@qualitydigest.com . Visit his Web site at www.hjharrington.com .

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