It must be one of the business world’s most widely used calls to action – “We must make the customer the centre of everything we do!” The reason it is, of course, is that it is absolutely right. Nothing is more important. But for all the passion and conviction put into creating genuine customer focus it is frustrating when we get it wrong.

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Like many businesses around the world Telstra has been working to put the customer at the centre of everything we do. We have made good progress, but I’m the first to admit that we do not always get things right. Every business has a unique set of challenges, but when your business – like ours – is answering 15 million customer calls each year, making 900,000 customer appointments and completing 3.4 million tasks in the field, you only need to get it a little bit wrong to disappoint many.

That is the nature of the challenge. It is a task that for many of us is far from complete and we still have much to learn. That said, we now have the benefit of some hard earned experience. Here are some of the key lessons we have learnt so far:

  • Leaders need to show a genuine commitment: Strategies to put customers at the centre of an organisation need to be carefully coordinated and led. Leaders need to communicate why it is important, supervisors need to show employees how their efforts and actions affect the customer and staff need to know they have the ability to resolve customer issues.When staff see their leaders – all of their leaders – committed and focusing on the customer they are more likely to engage, so make it visible. Leaders need to be seen talking to and about customers, asking questions, listening to their stories, making a difference. Real change comes from real actions.
  • Customer service is all things, great and small: Customer service improvement is a dimensionless concept – it can be the next big thing or it can be many small things. Legacy systems and processes may need to be refined (and sometimes overhauled or replaced completely) to improve the customer outcome, but be agile and creative with developing work-arounds in the meantime so system issues do not choke innovation or cause inaction. What really matters is being able to identify value and allocate the right amount of resource and energy to the right customer focused projects and programs at the right time.
  • Ideas can come from anywhere: The CEO and leadership team do not have all the answers. Many of the best customer service ideas come from front line staff. So create an outlet for them to raise and solve problems and give them whatever tools they need to take action. That way they are not only more likely to make customer focus an integral part of their roles but they will probably be happier and more engaged as well; there is real power and value in creating a link between employee satisfaction and change strategies.
  • Get everybody into the conversation: When it comes to internal communication use everything you have available – the company intranet, social media, internal newsletters, town-hall style meetings, video, face-to-face, online collaboration tools. As a large company with a diverse and dispersed workforce we have seen enormous value from being able to collaborate online (using Yammer) to canvass views, share ideas, and connect customer facing with non-customer facing staff. We have been able to get a temperature check on key issues quickly and broadly. Communicate, communicate, communicate; particularly the good customer outcomes. Genuine employee buy-in hinges on a broad understanding of why it all matters so getting everybody into the conversation is critical. Employees should see a clear link between what they do and the longer-term outcome, even those who are not customer facing. It is also critical to run workshops to show how everyone in the company can become customer focused. Communication channels also need to be open so any valuable customer insights can be shared quickly across the business. Leaders cannot make the changes staff know are necessary, or leverage staff insights, if they are unaware of them.
  • Stay focused on the customer: Depending on your organisational starting point, a well thought through customer strategy should deliver plenty of early wins. It gets harder when you are further down the road and return-for-effort looks more challenging. Encourage the team to stay focused on the customer. Find lots of ways to interact with your customers; they will always know what will make a difference better than you.

The job to make the customer the centre of any organisation is in many ways a never ending story. But you know you are starting to make progress when every team puts the customer first and every staff member thinks of themselves as being the Chief Customer Officer.

Source: David Thodey – CEO & Executive Director, Telstra