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The bigger you are, the more you seem to forget your customers

Picture yourself at one of our many fruit-and-vegetable markets.

If you frequent these places, I have no doubt that you have a favourite vendor that you habitually buy from. Why is that, when there are usually dozens of stalls before you, all offering very similar products at very similar prices? What makes you choose one seller?

The answer, of course, is in the service provided. I am willing to bet that your preferred stall-holder demonstrates some or all of the following characteristics: a welcoming smile and warm greeting; quality and prices that you feel you can trust, without needing to second-guess every transaction; prompt attention; additional services such as keeping your regular order ready, taking it to your vehicle, even delivering it to your home.

In any market anywhere in the world (I have visited many), there will be a few vendors who “get it”: they understand that when you are selling a commodity, you differentiate it in the eyes of the customer by adding emotional layers to it. Anyone can source vegetables and set up a stall, but not anyone can raise the energy to sell vegetables with a smile and make the effort to go the extra mile. Every single day. With every customer.

And so in every market you will find the majority of sellers just get by, selling just enough to eke out a meagre living. These sellers are invariably sullen and lazy. Then there will be a small minority whose stalls are always buzzing with repeat customers. I have observed many of the latter ilk expanding rapidly, adding stalls and even evolving into proper shops and buying delivery vans. Because they “get it.”

I often ask the chief executives of huge corporations to visit markets. For their own education. To remind themselves of the essence of business. To remember that what separates winners from losers is how good they are with their customers.

Peculiarly, the larger the company the more likely it is to forget this basic fact of business life. Today’s large organizations find it intensely difficult to deliver those same basics to customers: a warm smile; emotional bonding; quick attention; concern for the customer’s wellbeing.

Large organizations become like zombie zones peopled by the unfeeling and the uncaring. They are ruled by inviolable systems and governed by unyielding processes. They worship manuals, rules and codes. All because some leader, somewhere, lost his soul and began worshipping efficiency instead of customer delight.

Why else would big companies set up automated call centre systems that keep you in horrible loops and whose purpose is to prevent you from ever speaking to a human being? Why would they accept a situation where customers are kept on hold for 20 minutes? Why else would they keep two teller counters out of ten available during rush hour? Why would they reduce headcount in customer-facing activities?

Because someone started prioritizing short-term profitability over long-term customer loyalty. That is one of the biggest mistakes you can make in business, yet it seems to be made every other day.

In essence, business is simple. It involves the glueing of customers to your product. That glue is not created by machines and systems; it involves the day-to-day attention of human beings.

The larger the enterprise, the harder this becomes. It is not at all easy to keep customer-facing employees motivated day in, day out. It is very hard to ensure a consistent service experience across units and geographies. It is hellish to ensure a certain standard is met all the time. But difficult or not, it is vital and natural. If you have forgotten this as a business leader, you have really forgotten too much.

So don’t just picture yourself in that market; go there today.

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