Every year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos pens a letter to his shareholders, recapping successes of the past year and discussing upcoming goals. In 2009, Bezos noted that of the company’s 452 goals, 360 were designed to have a direct impact on the customer experience.
“Taken as a whole, the set of goals is indicative of our fundamental approach,” he wrote that year. “Listen to customers, but don't just listen to customers—also invent on their behalf. We can't assure you that we'll meet all of this year's goals. We haven't in past years. However, we can assure you that we'll continue to obsess over customers.”
That was then. 10 years later we can comfortably say that a good part of Amazon's meteoric growth can attributed to their 'customer obsession'.
The CEO has many responsibilities towards ensuring business success. However, as he or she steers the ship in a strategic direction to ensure goals are achieved, it is critical to keep a finely-tuned focus on the customer.
1. Incorporate customers into strategy and direction
As the CEO of your business, it is up to you to create the roadmap of where your company should go. You, along with your senior management team, should work together to strategize the direction of your business.
While it is assumed that the CEO will set budgets, decide on acquisitions and create partnerships, the customer should be an integral part of a company’s direction.
Determine if your business is product-driven or customer-driven. A product-driven business is one in which a product is developed first, and then the company is built around the product. A customer-driven business first generates a profile of its customer, learns what the customer wants, and develops products to complement the customers’ needs.
Either way, it’s important to keep the customer as one of the primary focuses of a business strategy.
2. Develop a senior executive team with a customer focus
A CEO is in charge of creating the senior management team, but also for firing the team members that do not effectively support the strategy of a business.
The senior team may feel that it is keeping the customer in focus by supporting the creation of high-quality products, but if that product doesn’t fit the needs the customer, the perceived value of the product drops from a customer perspective.
Consider the rise and fall of the BlackBerry, which was at one time the leading smartphone provider with their then popular QWERTY keyboard. However, as consumer trends moved toward touchscreens, BlackBerry held fast to its keyboard design and the company began a downward spiral, with revenue plummeting from nearly $20 billion in 2011 to $932 million in 2018. Recent news does suggest some sort of a turnaround, but clearly the business is not in the position it was earlier.
Change, for better or worse, comes from the top. In the case of BlackBerry, the executive team lost sight of customers’ needs and preferences
Conversely, one business underscores its focus on the customer by insisting at every monthly meeting that each team member share one lesson they learned from a customer. They went as far as firing one manager who failed to present the acquisition of customer related intelligence for executive consideration.
3. Allocate funds towards customer success
Another critical role of a CEO is to set budgets for the company and make sure that that the most necessary projects receive funding, while also dialing down funds for those projects that fail to meet strategic value requirements.
According to one study, successful SaaS companies commit nearly one-quarter of their revenue dollars to research and development, while smaller companies may commit a larger percentage to R&D.
Steve Jobs said, “You've got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.”
Apple has always had a knack for studying the customer and developing products that the customers did not even know that they wanted or needed.
A lot of companies try to do the same thing, but they fall short when they fail to take their target customer’s profile into consideration.
Creating a product for your niche market customers can be even trickier, since that customer is a very small, select part of the marketplace. For example, Fishbrain was launched in 2012. Known by many anglers as the ‘Facebook for fisherman,’ the SaaS company connects those who love fishing, giving them a platform to share their catches of the day. At the same time, Fishbrain enhances the experience by syncing both meteorological and geological data, thus catering to the needs of their select audience.
4. Empower employees to serve customers
A broad definition of an effective CEO is someone who leads by example, but she also needs to empower everyone in the company with the customer-first mentality by keeping the lines of communication open and engaging all employees to come up with customer solutions.
One Hannaford supermarket recently demonstrated how well they enable their individual stores to focus on the customer. West Lebanon, N.H. store manager Shawn Quelch talked about one Monday afternoon when the store’s cash register system crashed and could have taken up to an hour to fix. The lines began to back up into the aisles and as tensions were mounting, Quelch made the decision to let the customers leave with the groceries they were trying to purchase.
This impromptu giveaway cost the store an estimated $3,000 to $5,000, but it kept a lot of customers satisfied. Quelch summed up the decision by saying, "Our best chance to make it right for our customer is the first chance we get and we took every opportunity to make it right for our folks.”
Sometimes, even the smallest things like incorrect recurring billing practices can have an impact on customer relationships. In the present hyper-competitive business environment, it is vital that employees be empowered with the right technology and tools to improve the customer experience.
5. Foster company culture with the customer in mind
A final common responsibility that all CEOs share is the goal of promoting a healthy company culture. The process is three-fold:
- Hire the right people—and fire the wrong ones.
Share the company’s mission and values, and ensure that all employees understand and uphold them.
Underscore the benefits of teamwork.
Zappos not only requires every new hire to spend four weeks of training in the call center and then another two weeks taking calls from customers, whether that new hire is a developer or an accountant. After that first week, they offer $2,000 to any person who wants to leave the organization.
This, according to Zappos founder and CEO Tony Hsieh, sorts out those people who are just there for a paycheck and not to serve the customer.
The CEO’s job is never an easy one, given that she carries the ultimate responsibility for the achievements or failures of a business. In the subscription and e-commerce era, a focus on the best customer experience possible is integral to ensuring continued recurring revenue growth and success. It is now more important than ever for businesses to deploy a customer-centric approach—from the top down.