For the most part my articles in this magazine have addressed salespeople and their approach to their profession. Salespeople, however, cannot work in a vacuum. To close sales and to ensure future business, they must rely on the active assistance and cooperation of numerous colleagues from every functional area of the business.

I'm going to change focus, therefore, to discuss some of the means available to managers to help their employees (and themselves) sharpen their customer focus. In this article, I will examine the impact of managerial and employee attitudes, as well as organizational goals, on a distributorship's success.

Offhand, I can't think of a single company that prides itself on ignoring the customer. Read the ads, listen to the commercials. Everyone says that they are customer-focused, that the customer is paramount. But something is wrong here. The facts don't support the claims. It might be a tired cliché, but an old adage seems to apply: “Actions speak louder than words.”

The business graveyard is filled with companies that talked a lot about customers but ignored them in practice. Hundreds of businesses fail each year because they refuse to include the customer among their top priorities. They expend all their energy and resources fighting the competition rather than satisfying their customers. Still others meet the same fate because they mistake a marketing orientation for a customer focus.

There is a difference. The former deals with markets and relies on market research, advertising, sales promotion and other methods to get products and services in front of customers in a form that will elicit the most favorable response. These are important and necessary steps in the life cycle of a product or service, but they do not guarantee success. Real success, particularly in this highly competitive market, requires a true customer focus.

As a manager, you may find your best approach to the issue to be the most obvious: See the situation from your customer's perspective. Consider your own experience as a customer — specifically, the bad experiences. “That's the last time I'll buy from that place!” We've all said it a hundred times.

My purpose here is not to concentrate on the negative by cataloging customer complaints, but before I address a positive policy of commitment to customer satisfaction, it is useful — if only to generate some empathy — to recognize what customers don't like. Some common examples:

  • Discourtesy: “Did you hear the way that sales rep talked to me?”

  • Broken promises: “That's not what they said when we bought it from them.”

  • Poor quality: “When you pay top dollar, you expect something that works as advertised.”

  • Ignored complaints: “Don't they ever talk to each other?”

  • Poor post-sale service: “What an outfit! Just took my money and ran.”

  • Ignored unique needs and problems: “I told them what I wanted.”

Sound familiar? These are only a few of the reasons customers become disenchanted, but they suffice to make my point. One thing is certain. If your customers feel negative about your business, they won't generate many referrals, which are probably your best source of new customers.

As a start, let's see what I mean by customer-focused. Simply stated, being customer-focused means believing in and operating under the precept that nobody is more important than the customer. It means, too, that this idea permeates the entire organization.

Prolific author and management guru Peter Drucker correctly stated, “The customer is the foundation of the business and keeps it in existence.” In simple, stark terms, the customer is the guy with the dough who keeps us all in jobs. These are strong, unqualified words; and it would be difficult to find a manager who would openly disagree with them. Yet despite vigorous nods of assent, many managers violate this principle daily.

When one sees this happen so regularly, it is easy to lapse into cynicism and define the successful business as that which makes fewer mistakes than its competition. This would, however, be unfair to the many companies, large and small, that have achieved success by paying attention to and acting on their customers' needs and wants. Our goal here is to help you join their ranks.

What follows, then, is a prescription for developing a customer-focused organization by managing the customer. It isn't so much a style of management as a way of thinking, an approach consisting of several critical elements — attitude, goals, organization, knowledge, communication, teamwork, rewards and training. While each element must, out of necessity, be discussed separately, it is important to realize that they are interdependent. In the truly customer-focused organization, no one can stand alone.

ATTITUDE

Managerial attitudes

A customer-focused attitude is the sine qua non, without which nothing is possible. It must begin with you!

As a manager (especially if you are an entrepreneur), you take the risks and put in the long hours necessary to start your business and get it off the ground. You are, in effect, a creator; and you can take justifiable pride in what you have created. But you are also a manager — a multiplier — and you achieve your business goals only through the efforts of your people. You cannot do it alone — not for long, anyway.

Every growing business eventually reaches a breakpoint, a time when the delegation of responsibility — and commensurate authority — becomes mandatory. Unfortunately, some entrepreneurs either don't recognize this moment or, recognizing it, don't know how to handle it.

As business expands, whether you are its owner or a manager, you become less involved at the point of sale and increasingly immersed in financial, competitive and product line concerns. It becomes easy to lose sight of your primary goal — that is, to earn a profit by satisfying the diverse needs of unique customers. The danger here is that your salespeople — who are more sensitive to your priorities than you probably think — will respond like weather vanes; and they will turn to point in the direction of the latest gust from the boss's office. If employees develop negative attitudes toward their jobs, the company or their customers, the cause is pure and simple: management isn't doing its job.

Any attitude can be changed, and often the change can be made quite quickly. Psychologists tell us that people respond most strongly to those stimuli that are frequent and close at hand. Their response tends to be proportional to the intensity of the stimulus. Too often an employee's only strong stimulus is her manager. Why? Because the manager insists on it. Well, you might be the boss, but you're not perfect. The more dictatorial you are, the more your imperfections will be mirrored in your employees. Over the long run, this is a prescription for failure.

The first step, then, is one of leadership. Unless you are committed to customer satisfaction, it's unlikely your employees will be. If you consistently place other concerns (administrative, short-term financial, etc.) above customer-related considerations, your people will do the same. Authoritarian managers think they know best in all cases (or try to have others believe they do). They rarely head customer-focused organizations! Their people are so concerned about pleasing their managers over the short term that they have little time for the customer.

Employee attitudes

Effective managers who are committed to customer satisfaction encourage, rather than discourage, their employees. They provide the training and tools employees need to attain their personal goals and those of the business. Successful managers realize that customer satisfaction is not possible without first achieving employee satisfaction.

If you manage a small business, you have a real advantage here because most, if not all, of your employees deal with customers regularly. This is not true of many large commercial enterprises. Consider your suppliers. Other than their salespeople, with how many of their employees do you have regular, personal contact? Do you know any of their design, manufacturing or financial people? More importantly, do they know you? If not, there is little likelihood that they will make decisions with you in mind. The less contact your employees have with real, live customers, the less important each customer becomes.

Regardless of your employee's job, customers who come in contact with him will see him as your representative. They will not differentiate between salespeople and non-salespeople. Customers may not make allowances for those who lack sales training and experience; and as long as competition exists, they never will. “Everybody sells” must become the rule. Following are a few of the more important attributes of a customer-oriented employee:

Confidence

If your salespeople lack confidence in themselves and their ability to do the job, it will be noticed, raising doubts about your company and what it offers. Confidence comes partly through knowledge and experience. It is also an attitude that can be nurtured and developed by managers who care about their employees' growth.

Belief in the company and what it offers

Hell must be a place where you are forced to sell for a company you don't believe in. But it is not enough that your employees believe in the company and its products; they must exhibit that belief. Enthusiasm and conviction are contagious, and both will infect your customers.

Honesty

While short-changing the customer might produce an attractive immediate gain, over the long haul it's a strategy for suicide. To ensure that your customers are satisfied over the long term, you must consider their long-term needs. This sometimes means surrendering the immediate sale if your product or service falls short of what a customer needs or wants. That honesty is a virtue in short supply is a sad commentary, but one that can work for you. Good, honest service may become Step One in Sale Two. It brings customers back again and again. Yes, some customers take advantage of good service. They seek your help and advice, then buy from a competitor based solely on price. However, they will be found to be exceptions.

Empathy

“Nobody knows the trouble I've seen.” The words of the old spiritual ring true in a lot of hearts. Rightly or wrongly, we tend to think that nobody else has shared our experiences. We want unique treatment and resent being fed canned solutions to our problems. Your company's advertising and that of the industry must, out of economic necessity, deal with “customers” as a market group. But the customer who walks in the door is an individual, a unique human being. Once you see each customer in that light, it will be easy to treat each of them as unique, a person who has personal needs as well as product and service needs. Empathy does not necessarily mean agreement. It does mean understanding the customer and becoming aware of how each customer feels and why. Developing this ability will prove to be Step One in the next meeting you have with the customer.

GOALS

A positive attitude is important, but only if supported by customer-driven structures and policies. Well-defined goals are among the main factors to which consistently successful businesses attribute their success. Is creating and sustaining a customer-driven business among your organization's stated goals?

Sadly, I have found that few employees are familiar with their management's goals, particularly the long-range goals. Do your employees recognize the emphasis you place on the customer? Are you constant in your support of customer service as a primary goal? Do you remind employees of its importance with respect to the continued growth of the business and to the very existence of their jobs?

Of course, you can't do goals; specific actions must be taken to achieve them. Your business goals mean little unless they are supported by you, reflected in your policies, understood by your employees and deep-seated in your daily business activity. Do you weigh every decision, every action, by asking yourself and your people: “What will be the effect on the customer?” To emphasize the importance of this, one of our clients has posted signs everywhere in the company's facilities asking this question. Another opens and closes every internal meeting by asking the same question. Only by constant reminders will customer focus become habitual, part of your company's culture.