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Customer intimacy works

This article appears in the issue February 1998 [Volume 7, Issue 2]

Customer intimacy is a concept that almost all organizations embrace today. Everyone says, "We want to be in partnership with our customers" or "We value our customers' needs." But how often do companies carry those lofty values into their day-to-day activities? Are those values inculcated into mainstream processes and tasks? The answer is, "Not as often as they should be." Here is a story that underscores the need to keep customer intimacy at the forefront of consciousness.

The case involves a government agency that deals with regulating and adjudicating commercial practices. The agency's senior managers are quick to stress their obligations to their constituents and to point out that those obligations are spelled out in the mission statement.

The agency disseminates all adjudication results to its entire constituency. In the past, that was accomplished via paper postings in the agency and at the U.S. Post Office. Recognizing that the process was inadequate and slow, the agency decided to post the results on the Internet, giving everyone instantaneous access.

In interviewing some of the constituents, however, we found out that few, if any, were using the new system and that many were relying on the old paper one. When they were particularly interested in a case, they would send someone to the agency to find out the results.

We learned that while the information was finding its way to the agency's Web page, the process was unreliable, inconsistent and sometimes took longer than the paper method. Why? We learned that the person responsible for placing the information on the site had been told by supervisors to do so when he or she "had a chance."

The notion of customer intimacy broke down when the value of the process was not recognized. The agency should have realized that simply installing technology would not satisfy customer needs, and that the time sensitivity of the information made posting it an immediate priority. Failure to make it a priority destroyed any benefit the investment in technology could have produced. In fact, the agency took a step backward, because the expectations of its customers were dashed.

Karl Albrecht in his book "The Only Thing that Matters" describes an exercise that organizations can use to test their customer intimacy. He speaks of "moments of truth," which are defined as interactions with customers in which you have an opportunity to win big or blow it. The idea is to map all daily activities in which customers have contact with your organization. Driving into the parking lot, standing in line, waiting to be serviced, calling on the phone for information or for a complaint, letters sent out, payments made. For each of those "moments of truth," ask yourself if your organization is doing all it can to demonstrate the values it espouses. Are there enough parking spots, is it convenient to get to the building in inclement weather; are there enough servers to keep the wait to a minimum, and are payments made as quickly as possible?

Customer intimacy is not an idle concept--it works. When we are treated well, we tend to return and when we have been treated badly, we avoid going back. *

Tom Flanagan is a director of The Cordis Group (Chelmsford, MA), 508-649-3355, fax 508-649-3388, E-mail tomflana@sprynet.com


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