Private Companies Will Face Increased Competition for Sales in 2013 - Newport Board Group Releases Seven Strategies Designed to Improve Customer Retention

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Technology is no substitute for touching your customers and understanding their needs

"No Man's Land" is the place where companies are too big to be small and too small to be big

Rapid technological advances in Customer Relationship Management (CRM) have created opportunities for companies to serve new customers around the world in ways never before imagined. Even small private companies are rapidly going global, deploying a variety of technology-enabled mechanisms such as offshore call centers, customer self-service technology, social media sales initiatives and email marketing.

But these advances, designed to facilitate customer contacts and service in new ways, raise a danger. Companies that embrace the various forms of CRM risk losing intimacy with their customers and a nuanced understanding of their needs. As every disgruntled caller to a customer service center knows, enabling call center personnel to access your records is no substitute for really understanding and satisfying your needs. Automated email surveys of satisfaction with handling of calls to your service center are no substitute for human contact at a high enough level in both organizations to understand how your company needs to better serve the customer.

No Man’s Land

The risk that technology will lead to the loss of the human touch with customers’ parallels and complements a risk that is endemic to companies in No Man’s Land, the place where growth slows or stops and the company is too big to be small and too small to be big. Every CEO of a private company knows when this happens but many do not know how to move out of No Man’s Land.

Private companies generally lose their way and move into No Man’s Land when the founder loses touch with customers without building capability to replicate the hands-on attention he or she used to give customers when the company was small. Sales departments are created and CRM systems are implemented, occasionally to excess. Often, it takes the loss of a major client or a client crisis to ring an alarm. Sometimes a chain reaction ensues: consultants are brought in; people are replaced; costs are cut. This may lead to further distraction from the root of the problem: lack of clear understanding of customer needs and what to do to satisfy them. Hierarchies and dispersed rights to make decisions affecting customers creep in as companies grow and often, this only complicates the problem.

Adopting a market driven strategy

Companies that have successfully re-focused on their customers and adopt a market-driven customer strategy generally follow two rules:

1.    All groups within the company, management, R & D, finance, marketing, service and production rededicate themselves to a focus on customers. They resolve to remove the bureaucratic walls that have grown up between the company and its customers.
2.    The company creates an account management or customer relationship structure to serve as the central point of contact to understand the customer’s needs and coordinate delivery of value.

Re-engaging with your customer

Companies that successfully re-engage with their customers:

1.    Get to know the significant players at as high a level as possible within the customer company, on a personal basis.
2.    Do a deep dive on the history and current state of the account: revenue by type of product/service; key players; milestones and events in the relationship.
3.    Are not afraid to hear the truth. For example, if the customer has started to regard your company as “order takers” who can’t help them as their needs change, you need to turn this perception around—fast.
4.    Keep their eyes and ears open for new opportunities to serve the customer, even if this challenges accustomed ways of doing business.
5.    Share knowledge of what the customer wants--widely and urgently throughout the organization. In the case of customer dissatisfaction, let bad news travel fast.
6.    Develop a go forward plan for each significant account.
7.    Have dedicated their organization to proactively understand the customers business better than the customer and provide solutions to problems before the customer even realizes one exists.

Customers today have many options and places to buy products and services. They buy from the company that cares about them and can add value as their needs change. Technology interfaces such as call centers and automated responses are only a way to supplement and amplify what should be the heart of your effort: a relentless, person-to-person focus on the customer’s objectives and challenges.

About the company: Newport Board Group is a partnership of board directors and senior executive leaders. We assist growth, middle market and private equity portfolio companies to navigate transitions and improve performance.

Michael Evans ((415) 990-1844) is Managing Director of the Northern California practice of the Newport Board Group.
Mark Rosenman ((917) 549-4064) is Newport’s Chief Knowledge Officer.

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Michael Evans
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