Think Customer: From Insight to Action             
Customer Trends, Innovations and Actionable Ideas

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                      Thought Provoking, Insanely Great Ideas

The New Reality: Think like Customers, Innovate, Optimize Results

By Susan P. Cook

In these times of economic uncertainty, it is essential for organizations to think like customers, continually innovate, and optimize results. My behind-the-scenes research with such highly successful companies as USAA, Southwest Airlines, Marriott Hotels, Charles Schwab, Herman Miller, Disney World, Mid-Columbia Medical Center and other organizations revealed that such organizations balance their focus on the bottom line with an obsession for inspired people and enthusiastic customers.

A company can have the world's greatest product, backed by the most magnificent business plan, but if employees and customers aren't turned on, the company will not achieve long-term business vitality. Successful leaders continually renew their commitment to traditional values and reaffirm the organization's integrity through actions.


Ask yourself when was the last time you had a great service experience in a department store, bank, service station, hotel, or airline.  What made the experience great?

Having asked more than 3,000 people this question, I am appalled by the simple responses:  "Someone was nice to me." "They gave me what I asked for when and where I wanted it." "They returned my phone call." Although more than 85% of organizations have some type of customer relationship program, only about 30% achieve extraordinary results. These organizations think like a customer, make evangelists not just numbers, inspire innovation, and spend time and resources on what's important. Today's health care consumers want choice, access, and personalized service and care. Choice is in, gatekeepers are out. People have a fundamental need to be involved in their care and choose for themselves. The future of health care lies in the ability to humanize, personalize and de-mystify customer experiences. By using modern capabilities and a commitment to a patient-centered delivery of care, health care professionals can recapture the spirit of mutual trust and cost effectiveness.

Mid-Columbia Medical Center in The Dalles, OR, is a good example of a patient-centered care organization that delivers health care as everyone would like it. Mid-Columbia's approach was developed in conjunction with the Planetree Organization, a nonprofit consumer group in San Francisco. Mid-Columbia redesigned every aspect of the care it provides to promote wellness. Its approach is represented by the acronym HEALTH: humanistic care, empowerment, and access to information, liberty to choose, trust and heal. The clear focus on patient-centered care encourages staff and customers alike to challenge conventional wisdom regarding access to information, food service, education, the arts, outpatient services, and management.

Make evangelists, not just numbers

Organizations that achieve extraordinary results from ordinary people succeed in making evangelists inside and outside the organization--people who create a positive "buzz" about the company. Turning customers into evangelists requires mastering the fundamentals and making it easy for customers to do business with the company. Good word of mouth goes a long way. Nordstrom's, the department store chain, spends little on advertising, yet the company is successful because of the legions of people who share positive shopping experiences. You can buy the same product in many stores, but people choose to shop at Nordstrom for the total service experience. Marriott Hotels credits its growth in the last decade to its customer obsession.

Validating the key drivers of customer satisfaction and loyalty in more than 2,000 hotels worldwide, Marriott rigorously focuses on what customers value most. According to Bill Marriott, Chairman and CEO, Marriott Hotels are the top choice for meeting planners because "we serve hot food hot and cold food cold." Guest surveys monitor adherence to the basics: everything is clean and works, check-in is hassle-free, staff is friendly and hospitable, problems are resolved quickly, and breakfast is served on time.

The San Antonio Marriott inspires staff with a compelling mission: how can we ensure that every customer leaves satisfied? Each department and team member establishes goals to achieve this mission. In one year, the staff in the housekeeping department reduced the average time to make up a room from 26 minutes to 11 minutes by working in teams. As a result, this hotel ranks among the most successful in the chain in terms of customer satisfaction and profitability.

Inspire innovation

Sustaining a competitive advantage requires the ability to add value in the eyes of your customers. Ask your customers if your organization is easy to do business with, what you do well and what you could do better. Then take action. Southwest Airlines captures the essence of how leaders can inspire innovation and teamwork. When asked about their incredible success, Herb Kelleher, Founder and Former CEO, simply stated, "We love people." Focusing on people has helped Southwest Airlines achieve more than 30 years of consecutive profitability and be recognized as one of the best organizations to work for.

By understanding customer and staff needs, Southwest Airlines became an industry leader in terms of customer satisfaction, on-time departures and arrivals, and quick baggage handling. Management and staff focus on what customer's value most: price and value, on-time take-offs and landings, safety, rapid baggage service, and to be treated nicely. Southwest Airlines puts its money where its mouth is. They not only evaluate and reward all team members for achieving the basics, but also for testing innovative ideas.

Putting people first is exemplified by Colleen Barrett, President and chief operating officer, personally leads the company's "culture" committee. Made up of 130 employees who are nominated by their peers, the committee meets quarterly to "do whatever it takes to keep the Southwest Airlines spirit." Doing whatever it takes includes participating in visits to the field three times per year, being a mentor to other employees, conducting appreciation days, and focusing on solving key issues. Believing they are in the freedom business, leaders inspire team members to think and act like owners. Executives go beyond talking about service and help take reservations, unload airplanes, and do other behind-the-scenes work during busy times.

Pursue Simplicity

Although research indicates that 65% of existing customers will provide 85% of future business, many companies focus on getting new customers instead of keeping existing ones. Inundated with customer surveys and market research, organizations find it difficult to translate good ideas to action. USAA of San Antonio, TX, gathers customer information with the best of them, but never loses sight of its goal--a personal relationship with 4.6 million customers.

USAA believes that every service experience provides an opportunity to track customer feedback and tap into an endless source of new product and service ideas. Starting as an insurance company for military officers in 1922, USAA has grown into a $64 billion worldwide insurance and financial services leader by never losing sight of the importance of personal relationships. Using the data about its customers, USAA relentlessly looks for ways to serve its customers better.

A key program called ECHO [every customer contact has opportunity] captures comments from customers and staff and turns those data into usable information to fix problems fast. Only after taking immediate action does USAA send information to its centralized clearinghouse to be analyzed. This is the power of simplicity. Team members know to take action first and analyze the data later. Can you imagine the impact when deployed officers tell stories of how they each received a refund check for the time they were away and not able to use their cars for three months? Why would they do business anywhere else?

Actions speak louder than

Customers appreciate an organization that cares about its people. When you walk into a place of business, you know right away whether or not the employees are cared for and treated with respect. Your people and customers can sense sincerity, and the lack of it. Each of us becomes more dedicated and works harder when we are cared for and treated like human beings. After the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, pharmacy staff at McConnell Air Force Base recognized that, as a result of heightened security procedures, people could not get onto the base. Without going through a formal approval process, the pharmacy staff set up a satellite pharmacy outside the base. The facility filled 5,000 prescriptions in three days.

This action by the pharmacy staff sent a credible message that they put their customers first. Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani is credited with cleaning up Times Square and drastically reducing crime in the city, but until September 11 was considered a controversial leader. When the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan was destroyed, Giuliani was visible at the disaster scene leading the rescue and recovery efforts. He seemed to be everywhere in New York. Giuliani was empathetic, and he inspired people all over the city to help each other. Giuliani's credibility came not from what he said, but from what he did. People everywhere now know him as Time magazine's Man of the Year and better still, a leader who understands that at the core, life and business are about people.

          Key Strategic Questions    
  1. Who are your key customers?
  2. Do customers feel the organization is easy to do business with?
  3. What are the five basics that impact customers' intent to return?
  4. What three things drive customers and staff crazy?
  5. What one action you can take in the next 30 days to build customer satisfaction and loyalty?

            Action Ideas

  1. Measure and reward everyone on customer satisfaction, innovation and results
  2. Eliminate 50% of ineffective meetings, memos, and e-mail messages.
  3. Ask three customers per month what your company does well and could do better;
  4. Act on suggestions within 24 hours.
  5. Call customer support on a weekend and evaluate your service experience
  6. Identify and remove three barriers for your customers


Sue Cook is President of Think Customer, a consulting practice that pioneers innovative strategies to created customer-obsessed organizations. She is also co-author of Turned On: Eight Vital Insights to Energize Your People, Customers and Profits and co-founder of Innovative Thinkers and Doers Leadership Forum with Roger Dow, Sr. Vice President of Marriott Hotels. The U.S. Air Force Medical Services Division is among her clients. |                                                                                  


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