4 keys to focusing on customers in a complex world

By Ken Tysiac

As waves of data, complexity, and regulation crash over the current environment, it's easy for overwhelmed business leaders to lose sight of their most important objective.

Customers and clients need to be the center of focus for organizations and CPA firms, even amid the other challenges and opportunities posed by digitization and complexity.

"You can write on bits of paper as much as you want, 'The customer is our king.' The challenge is how you take the organization with you and make it happen," Hamish Taylor, who spoke Sunday at the AICPA fall Council meeting, said during a pre-Council interview.

Taylor, a consultant who served as CEO of English Channel tunnel railway Eurostar and then as CEO of Sainsbury's Bank, has developed a four-step model to help organizations become more customer-centric and client-centric.

The model consists of meeting four challenges:

  • Changing the way you look at your customers.
  • Creating a customer promise.
  • Looking outside your industry for new ideas for serving your clients.
  • Changing how you engage with your customers.

Ultimately, the challenges revolve around fulfilling the customer promise that Taylor discusses as the second step in the process. Succeeding depends on a commitment to look at things in new ways and a willingness to do things differently.

"To really become customer-centric, it's an enormous change," Taylor said. "It's culture and attitude, and also products and service and how you engage with customers."

Change the way you look at your customers

After taking over Sainsbury's Bank, whose branches are located in grocery stores, Taylor worked to understand the shoppers who were current or potential customers. Sainsbury's learned that shoppers were in a big hurry to get their groceries and get home.

Although the locations of Sainsbury's branches give the bank excellent access to customers (because everybody needs groceries), these customers have little patience for long sales pitches or complicated product explanations. Providing products and services at the branches that were simple and easily explained helped the bank improve its results, according to Taylor.

"That was the key to the turnaround at Sainsbury's Bank," he said.

At one time, Eurostar executives thought they needed to convince leisure travelers that their train service was a better way to get from London to Paris or Brussels than taking a plane or a car. So their advertising focused on explaining why they were preferable to their competitors.

After speaking with customers, though, they learned that they needed to focus instead on convincing people that traveling to these locations was a great way to spend their time and income. They needed to sell people on the magic of traveling to these places.

"Where you really want to be today is inside the customer's head, because that's where they make decisions," Taylor said. "And understanding what's going on in the customer's mind is actually the critical factor in really understanding the customer."

Taylor said surveys and data can help organizations do this, but he also advocates strongly for simply observing customers. He said a U.K.-based optician once committed to simply observing how customers react and are treated when they enter a store.

He said valuable insights can be gleaned from simply watching customers in action in this way. Insights of front-line, customer-facing employees also can provide important ideas if there is a method for escalating their comments up to management.

For example, when Taylor was at British Airways, two front-line employees at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City suggested that travelers on overnight flights would prefer having their meals at an airport lounge before boarding the plane, so that they could sleep uninterrupted during their flights.

"That's where you get the best insights, because they are seeing it day to day," Taylor said.

Create a customer promise

A customer promise can also be called a value proposition or a brand proposition. No matter what it's called, it's a simple declarative statement of the benefit you intend to deliver to the customer that gives the organization or firm a keen focus.

"It gives you a ruthlessly simple tool for managing the rest of the business," Taylor said. "If you have a simple statement like that, what you're telling your staff is, 'That's why we're here. That's what we're trying to do for clients.' By doing that, you open it for everybody to start contributing."

Accounting firms sometimes struggle to describe themselves in this way, Taylor said. A firm's website may describe the partners' long list of credentials and their expertise in the services they provide without explaining what value they will bring to their clients.

Taylor said organizations that succeed in this area are good at building everything they do around a simple customer benefit statement. Volvo is just one of many car companies, but its commitment is to passenger safety. That's made abundantly clear in both its product development and its advertising, and therefore the brand appeals to customers for whom safety is a priority.

In today's arena, customers' experience and even their feelings often are highlighted in the customer promise. Apple has succeeded by making its computers and gadgets easy to use and easy to purchase in its shops. Disney is an iconic company because it creates magical experiences in its theme parks and its films.

"Imagine that being your job description," Taylor said. "Wouldn't that be great? Your job is to create magical surprises. That would look good on your business card."

Look outside your industry for new ideas

Sometimes, the best answer for serving your customers can come from a completely different industry or profession.

When British Airways was designing its queues in London's Heathrow Airport, it consulted with Disney, which is a master of accommodating crowds waiting in line at its theme parks. When placing beds in luxury jets, the airline turned to a yacht designer for its expertise in creating comfort in cramped spaces.

"Don't feel you're alone in this," Taylor said. "Lots of people are facing this in other industries, and guess what, they've got really good ideas as well."

Delivering a promise of trust is a core tenet of many accounting firms, which often promote their status as trusted advisers and as guardians of the public interest. To help deliver on that promise, Taylor suggested that accountants examine the behavior of other professionals who emphasize trust.

Physicians, for example, are highly trusted. One of the reasons they are trusted is because they listen to their patients. They don't just write a prescription the moment a patient walks in the door. Instead, doctors listen to a description of the symptoms and complete a physical examination before prescribing a course of action.

Accountants can learn from that, as well as from what creates public trust in pilots or even in the idea that their car will start each morning. Brainstorming ideas from other situations related to trust can help accountants come up with eight or 10 principles for how they will follow through on their customer promise of trust — if that's the promise they have given.

"Whatever your problem is, whatever your customer promise is, there's someone else out there that's doing it," Taylor said. "It doesn't have to be other businesses. It can be anywhere."

Change how you engage with customers

Creating a customer promise and delivering on it may require significant change in how an organization operates.

People in the organization might resist that change at first. Taylor said people often are willing to accept incremental differences, but they may fear changes that turn their working world upside down.

"If you really want innovation, you've got to shake people out of that," he said. "You've got to set the ambition for a way forward in such a way that if they look at it, they think, 'Blimey, that's exciting, but it's going to require some additional ways of working to get there.' "

Taylor encourages leaders to consider whether their business is organized for their convenience or for the customer's. If customers regularly have to deal with multiple different departments, the organization may need to change things to deliver on its customer promise.

Internally, those changes might be unpopular at first, but it's important to emphasize the importance of putting the customer first. It benefits no one, employees included, to keep a system that frustrates and angers customers by, for example, making them transfer to six different departments to get the answer to a simple question. Customers want better service, and companies need to inspire and help employees to make the changes needed to meet customer demand. 

"It's not enough to get people to believe in the new way of doing things or the message you're giving them," Taylor said. "Helping them to take the first steps is just as important. If you're asking people to do something new or behave in a different way, you have to help them over the threshold to take the first steps."

Ken Tysiac (Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com) is the JofA's editorial director.

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