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The business of managing customer relationships

"IT'S really hard to teach an elephant to dance".

If you did a random poll among your friends today I can bet that at least half of them have customer service horror stories of doing business in Jamaica. Unfortunately, when it comes to serving the customer, many Jamaicans trained to do so are at sea and some of the customer service managers to whom they report are not much better. It seems as if they mistake service for servitude, have Roots -- the movie about slavery, not the drink -- flashbacks and take a distinct and sudden dislike for their job and for you, the customer they are serving.

Managing the relationship with the customer is a business at which, sadly, Jamaicans are not very good. The manager or the business owner is usually absent from the front-line. The customer service agent should therefore represent the owner's best interest and communicate the enthusiasm and care for the customer that the owner would. It is very ironic then that some retail storeowners communicate their contempt by employing the least skilled and articulate persons as floor attendants; some telecoms and other service companies hire disinterested incompetents.

If it is that good customer service and the repeat business that it brings drives the bottom line, I believe that it is a great wonder that some Jamaican businesses are kept afloat. All is not lost as there are notable and very shining exceptions to what sometimes happens. But there are some businesses that people I know will never ever darken those doors because of the treatment meted out to them. Over the weekend, I read in great dismay about a customer's experience at a clothing store in Kingston. The customer was given a proper 'mouth-thrashing' by the store's floor manager and fled the store in shame -- money in hand. No woman wants the whole store to know that she is eying a shoe or dress size smaller than she can wear.

I truly hate to compare but in contrast to how we 'do it here', this was the North American experience of a colleague in Coral Gables, Florida. "My husband and I were window shopping in a very expensive neighbourhood in Coral Gables and entered a store that could only be targeting Carlos Slim or Bill Gates and billionaires of that ilk. As we entered and started looking around, a very well-groomed and extremely professional Latino type approached us to inquire if he could help us with our selections in anyway. We laughed and said to him "sorry, but we can't afford anything in this store". He promptly replied, "Well sir and madam, I treat everyone with respect, you see today you may not be able to afford anything, but tomorrow you may win the lottery and buy the store, and I end up working for you." Food for thought. Smart guy. And talk about enlightened self-interest."

The sad fact is that if you speak with Jamaican business owners and those who run organisations, they will tell you of the hours of training and the money they have spent trying to equip their customer service staff with the requisite skills. But can you really ever teach an elephant to dance? Customer service is an attitude, it is not a qualification that you earn in a classroom, you either have the knack for it or you don't. You are either helpful or you are not. An effective customer service agent displays it in their demeanor and the tone of their voice. They genuinely want to help you. Many employees in customer service are not cut out for it but cannot find another job and are just passing time on their way towards another career goal. Meanwhile, your business suffers.

In these hard times, it is only the firm that is customer-centric that will survive and succeed. According to a new book by Harvard Business School's Ranjay Gulati, "it is customer-centric firms -- those with a so-called outside-in perspective -- that are most resilient during turbulent markets". An outside-in perspective means that companies aim to creatively deliver something of value to customers, rather than focus simply on products and sales.

His research includes interviews with 500 executives spanning industries and geographies.

"Most companies with an inside-out perspective become attached to what they produce and sell and to their own organisations. In contrast, the outside-in perspective starts with the marketplace and delves deeply into the problems and questions customers are facing in their lives. The goal is to bring value to customers in ways that are beneficial for them while also creating additional value for the company itself." He gave the example of bagged salad, a $2.5-billion-a-year industry, that allowed companies who utilised the outside in thinking to realise that customers want companies to make the whole salad for them.

"Today's customers expect solutions to their consumption problems, and they are utterly agnostic as to where those solutions come from. To meet these customers where they are, companies, in turn, must become less focused on what they themselves produce and more focused on their customers' most pressing needs, even when that carries them well beyond their own borders, even indeed when that means in essence dissolving themselves into broader partnerships," Gulati says.

He explained that the role of employees was vital if companies were moving towards "an outside-in perspective".

Says, he, "If the organisation does not have people who can explore, comprehend, and meet its customers' needs, the pursuit of customer-centricity is doomed from the start." Here in Jamaica some of our businesses have a really long way to go in managing the business of building effective customer relationships.


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