Putting the customer at the center of your business needs to happen at all levels.
It starts at the Boardroom. If your Management Board, or your Management Team are talking to customers and discussing customer issues and feedback on a regular level, then the levers to be managed are seen with a view towards the customer, and not the internal focus that often takes hold.
When I was CEO we implemented a process whereby we invite customers to present and get into robust discussions with our company Board of Directors. We also pushed this process into the divisional management meetings.
Adding customer discussions to the Board agenda is an important part of a broader customer engagement strategy with the board, including the regular review of customer survey results, engagement metrics, segmentation reviews. But nothing beats engaging directly with the customer!
The primary reason for this is so that the Board, on a regular basis, gets deep exposure to what key customers are thinking. Inevitably, after a few of these sessions, all board sessions become infused with a much more frequent and deeper understanding and discussion of customer needs - it is natural. Board members start referring to the customer conversations in board discussions.
Usually we would have large strategic customers come to talk to the board, but once in a while, we would bring in a midsize or SME customer as these were channels that were also very important to us.
The second reason this process was incredibly effective was the impact on the customer relationship. Don't underestimate the impact, and rarity, for a customer to engage with the entire board of your company for a few hours. It is a competitive advantage and cements your relationships deeply.
The process was as follows. The CEO with the Head of sales determines which customer gets invited. This is based on input from chairman as to what board wants to get exposure to but largely left up to the customer-facing organization -- they have an objective to get the board exposed.
The account executive that manages the customer arranges the visit. This is a significant recognition opportunity for the account executive; they and their customer have been chosen, and the account executive gets to sit in and see the customer/board engagement. Often this is an opportunity for the account executive to develop relationships higher up in organization as typically the CEO of customer company takes the opportunity to field this board visit.
Typically we would structure the agenda to include a 30 minute presentation, with the customer educating the board about their business and their industry. In addition, the customer is asked to speak about their relationship/experience with our company. They are asked to be blunt - the good, bad and ugly. In most cases they won't be as blunt as you want them to be.
This is where the discussion comes in! It is critical that board members take ownership to really get a lot out of this opportunity-probe the customer on his business, on the industry, and on how your company can improve, and prepare for trends that are developing.
It is an exciting process that strengthens customer relationships; most importantly, it creates an environment for the Board of Directors to hear unvarnished feedback, to engage in executive discussions of import with their customers. It puts the customer front and center of Board agendas.
Only good can come of that.