Employees and Customers

Greetings. Many of you know that I’m a big fan of the Container Store, a company that has built a remarkable business and a powerful brand by helping all of us to be better organized. It’s a company with thoughtful and energized employees, attractive stores, and a wide range of products all intended to enable us to get our “stuff” under control. They even have simple and user-friendly storage design tools that take the guesswork out of planning. And also being a big fan of the late comedian George Carlin, who was a passionate and humorous commentator on the notion that all of us in America have way too much stuff, I am continually amused (and even frustrated) by the role that stuff plays in our lives.

But I’m also impressed with how passionate the employees of the Container Store are about their mission and how much the company seems to love and value its employees. In fact, it places employees first in all of its decisions and actions…believing that happy, engaged, and empowered employees are the best way to make customers happy. And this approach raises an important issue…

Who should come first in all of our businesses…customers or employees?

For a while, the popular notion was that organizations placing customers first were more likely to be successful. After all, customers are our raison d’etre. But companies like the Container Store, which win high marks for being great places to work, are making a powerful case that hiring, supporting, and inspiring the right employees is the best way to deliver a great customer experience. And it seems to make a lot of sense, because all too often businesses claim to care about customers but treat their own employees with so little regard that even the most customer-centric ones are challenged to keep doing the right thing continually.

In an era when the average tenure of a new hire is less than a year according to Fast Company magazine the experience of the Container Store, and other businesses like it, should challenge all of us to make sure that we are finding and nurturing the very best team members as the best way to ensure that we are building the very best customer relationships.


We win in business and in life when we hold our own people in the highest regard. And when we give them the encouragement and tools to bring real magic and even a bit of organization to the customers we have the privilege to serve.


Big Bank, Small World

Greetings.  This week I had the pleasure of speaking with a group of executives from the China Construction Bank.  They're here in the U.S. for a three-week educational program directed by Georgetown University.  While the core of their training focuses on the risk management side of financial services, they are also interested in learning more about innovation and how to create stronger and more valuable customer relationships.  And as you might imagine, these are topics near and dear to my heart and clearly vital challenges for leading businesses all across the globe.  So the session was a great opportunity for me to learn about banking in their market and test some of my latest thinking about how to inspire people at all levels of organizations to figure out better ways of doing things that really matter.

By way of background, China Construction Bank is a very large enterprise.  With assets of $1.3 trillion, more than 13,000 branches, and over 300,000 employees, it is–according to a recent Forbes magazine survey–the 17th largest corporation in the world.  And by its own data it is the world's leading bank in terms of return on assets and equity, and No. 2 in terms of net profit.  It's also a strategic partner of Bank of America which owns a significant stake.  And while it's been a leader in business and infrastructure lending in China, it is also aggressively expanding internationally and on the retail side where it now has the world's largest number of ATMs.

And it was primarily on the retail or consumer side of banking that I spent most of my time challenging the group to thinking about new ways to engage and connect with customers.  A challenge they undertook somewhat cautiously at first and then with growing enthusiasm as we rolled up our sleeves to think "out-of-the-box" or more appropriately, "out-of-the-branch."  It turns out that less than 15% of all bank transactions today occur in a branch, so bankers need to figure out how to operate in very different ways.  By having a deeper understanding of the new world of customers.  By using technology to create a new set of banking options that include not only their computer but a host of ever cooler mobile devices.  By giving customers the opportunity to personalize their banking experience along with their credit cards, savings plans, and investments.  By becoming partners in helping customers to manage their lives more effectively.  By giving customers the opportunity to reduce their energy footprint or invest in small enterprises half way around the globe.  And, by making bank branches and the delivery of knowledge more interesting and fun.  On this last note, I suggested the possibility of creating branches that were really coffee bars or tea houses that also happened to connect visitors to a wide range of banking services.  An idea that might resonate with a new generation of consumers across a world that is getting smaller by the day.


We win in business and in life when we consistently open our eyes to a world of possibilities, and when we discover the real similarities that sometimes divide us. 


“Black Friday”

Greetings.  It's the Friday after Thanksgiving Day here in the U.S. and a chance to "shop until you drop" if you're so inclined.  This day has even become its own holiday of sorts–dubbed "Black Friday"–when stores and consumers conspire to get a jump on the Christmas shopping season by offering and buying an amazing array of bargains.  Bargains that are so enticing that people will literally interrupt a good night's sleep to race to the nearest mall with the hope that they will snag a coveted game system, popular toy, LED TV, new computer, clothing, jewelry, the latest double, triple, or quadruple expresso maker, or some revolutionary kitchen appliance.  All at stores that opened conveniently at 12:01 a.m., 3:00 a.m., 4:00 a.m. and any other odd hour that might lure enthusiastic shoppers and spark the resurgence of our challenged economy.  I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

Not exactly.  

Because real value is something we should offer every hour of every day.  Not for "a limited time only" or "in limited quantities" or "while supplies last."  Sure the folks at Walmart, with all their giant stores and even more gigantic buying power, can choose to outdo themselves on Black Friday.  But you and I simply can't afford to. Because the success of our businesses is tied directly to our ongoing commitment to innovate and build deep and meaningful customer relationships.  Relationships that don't require our customers to wake up at all hours of the night in the hope of getting a better deal.


We win in business and in life when we always provide the most value for those we have the privilege to serve.  And when we're willing to stay up to make sure our customers get a good night's sleep.

Cheers and happy shopping!

Customers for Life

Greetings.  Looking to build and maintain great customer relationships?  If so, you're not alone.  Because it's a question I hear all the time from leading product, solution, and service companies that recognize just how important the customer experience is to their long-term success.  It's not enough to have great offerings. We also need to spend time with the customer, ask the right questions, spark the right conversations, develop the right understandings, bring exciting ideas and possibilities, and make the customer feel that our world revolves around them.

And here are seven ideas to keep you on target…

1.  Commit to understanding the customer's needs better than anyone else.  This means "living" in their world so you really get to know the challenges and opportunities they face and the results they hope to achieve.  A few years ago I had the chance to work with a large vending machine company.  While I asked a lot of questions and did a lot of homework at the beginning of the project, the way I really discovered how their business worked was by spending a week hanging out in the warehouse, talking with almost all of their employees, and driving one of their trucks on its route where I got to fill and clean a lot of vending machines and talking with a lot of customers.    

2.  Make and deliver on a promise worth keeping.  Once you understand what really matters to your customers, figure out how to "guarantee" that together you'll make it happen!

3.  Create and tell a powerful story about how you will meet their needs in a remarkable way.  And make sure the story, or at least the first chapter, ends with the customer achieving the results that matter most in a way they could only dream might happen.  Then write the second chapter, and the third, and so on as you continue to deliver even greater value.

4.  Challenge yourself to cast a wider net in the search for ideas and inspiration that can really meet the customer's need.  To do this, combine your best knowledge and know-how with a world of genius and learning about how to build enduring customer relationships.  And if you work in a large company that includes many lines of business, start by identifying the best practices hidden somewhere else in your organization.  

5.  Find the right customer relationship model to meet the desires and budget of your customers.  Remember that some people stay at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel while others stay at the Hampton Inn.  And both groups get a great customer experience–even if it's very different.

6.  Seek to make the customer smarter.  It turns out that the smarter you make your customers, the more value they'll place on your relationship.  So look for opportunities to drive knowledge in ways that enable them to get more out of your offerings and achieve greater success.

7.  Rethink what it means to be responsive.  It seems that almost every company talks about being available "24/7" to support the needs and issues of their customers.  But few really are.  So here's your chance to raise the bar in your industry by being ready and able at a moment's notice.

We win in business and in life by building relationships that stand the test of time.  Need a little spark in the way you work with customers? Why not try this quick check-up before it's too late.


Learning from Other Industries

Greetings.  In keeping with a recent theme of casting a wider net in our efforts to innovate and deliver greater value to customers, I would like to encourage you to spend a bit more time discovering the real genius in other industries.  The importance of this idea was made clear to me several years ago when I was invited to meet with the leadership team of a major regional bank.  While the bank had a rich history of innovation and growth, it had somehow lost its focus on building and maintaining strong customer relationships.  I arrived at the meeting with a few ideas, several questions, and (hopefully) an open mind.

After brief introductions, one of the executives handed me a copy of a study that they had commissioned on the customer service practices of the leading banks. Then the following conversation ensued…

"We've done some very important work in anticipation of meeting with you and other consultants," he began, sounding confident that they were well on their way to addressing the challenge.

"That's certainly interesting," I replied, quickly skimming the Table of Contents and the Executive Summary.  And then I began to smile the kind of smile that has a way of turning into a laugh.

"You're laughing because this is good, right?" he asked.

"Actually, I'm laughing because this is funny," I suggested.  (Realizing that my laughing in this type of meeting might be a "CLM" or "Career Limiting Move.") 

"Well, the other consultants we talked with seemed impressed," he noted.  "In what sense do you think that our (million dollar) study is funny?"

"At the risk of being viewed as inappropriate," I continued, "can I ask you a simple question?"


"Are banks renowned for providing the best customer service?" I asked.

"Probably not," he replied.

"Then you've just spent a lot of money learning things that probably don't matter to your ultimate success."

"That makes sense," he agreed.  "But what should we have done?"

I then suggested that they take a "journey" to discover some companies in other industries that were renowned providers of world-class customer relationships. Companies like Nordstrom, Ritz-Carlton, L.L. Bean, and USAA.  And, as luck would have it, they had a sense of humor…and invited me to be their guide in the effort to reinvent the way they served their customers.

Customer Relationships 

We succeed in business by always looking for better ideas.  And always believing that we might not be the only geniuses on the planet.  Imagine combining what you know with the best practices of leading companies in a wide range of industries.  You'd probably be very hard to beat.