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Many big companies take their customers for granted

The customer is king, customer first, customer focused, customer centred, customer this, customer that. You would be hard pressed to find a big company these days that doesn’t chant the customer mantras. In all CEOs’ speeches, in annual reports, in investor presentations, in awards ceremonies, the message is emphatic and repeated: they REALLY care about their customers.

Except that they really don’t. In most cases, this is empty chanting, ritualistic repetition of an untruth. Many large companies I have come across view customers as mere statistics, blips in the revenue chart, dots in the sales scattergram. They are unable to FEEL customers; they can only COUNT them.

This malaise particularly affects those companies with mass-market strategies. A very good thing has happened in business in emerging markets in recent years: big business has learned to focus on the big market at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ – the millions of low-income consumers who buy in small chunks but, taken together, represent a massive market opportunity.

For years, big business neglected the mass customer, thinking of him as an unschooled bumpkin of inadequate means who was not worth chasing. Enlightened thinking has prevailed more recently: companies are learning that if they package and price their products correctly profitable business is to be had at the bottom end, one small transaction at a time.

Manufacturers, banks, airlines, retailers, media companies, telecommunications firms: all are doing good business in the mass market, selling mass-produced products in small quantities at low prices. This has been a very good development for emerging-market economies, giving companies fresh market segments to work with and poor consumers products that are relevant and affordable. Everyone wins. Or do they?

Not quite. There is one thing that some of the noble purveyors of goods and services to the unwashed masses are not doing very well: providing a good customer experience. It is almost as though they tell themselves they are doing enough by just providing a product or service to people who never had it before. No further frills are necessary.

I understand fully the complexities of dealing with millions of customers. The number of transactions being completed every single day are overwhelming, and profit margins are often razor-thin. So there is no scope for finessing what is delivered: it is impersonal and repetitive.

Nevertheless, we are missing a trick here. Just because the customer you face is one of millions is no reason to make them faceless and unimportant. Just because you can’t spend much on them is no reason to make their experience cold, unfriendly or indifferent. Yet that is exactly what so many of our companies are doing.

If you are a mass customer you had better get used to queues and congestion. Whether it is in retail, banking, telephony or travel: you will often be treated no better than cattle. You will stand around in long lines for hours, or hang on incessantly for an operator; you will sit on hard, tiny, uncomfortable seats; you will have your calls dropped; you will share inadequate bandwidth; you will miss flights because of overbooking; and you will meet a faceless corporate monolith if you try to complain. Because the giant company facing you is most probably a dominant producer in a monopolistic market, the message is clear: if you don’t like what we do, take a hike.

This is utterly misguided. Treating each and every customer, no matter how humble, with dignity, respect and personal attention is every company’s duty. If you are unable to provide a modicum of good service, don’t be in the market. A decent customer experience is at the heart of business practice. It is the beginning and the end of good business. And I don’t care how big your numbers are: if you can’t look after customers and make them feel special, greatness is not a tag you will ever deserve.

What I find bizarre is the propensity to ignore the awful customer experience being provided. Many businesses know they are short-changing customers in terms of service delivery; yet they will still engage in marketing sprees, selling their wares at every street corner, engaging in wall-to-wall advertising. The result? More queues, more congestion, more frustration. Why do we never factor in the cost of the annoyance we instil in customers? We are feeding a pool of suppressed ill-will, which will only become apparent when credible competitors appear; then, your ‘loyal’ customers will abandon you in droves.

Many of our companies are paying no more than lip service to the process. They talk plenty, but walk nowhere. Making customers happy is not a feel-good slogan; it is a daily task. The best leaders know this, and lead the action. They get into their customers’ shoes, experience their own products, walk around and ask questions, challenge their company to produce ‘wow’ moments for customers. They feel deep-seated shame when their customers are let down. The others? Well, they just talk.

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