Want to run a large business like a start-up? Get closer to your customer.
Here’s a challenge: find a company mission statement or vision that doesn’t contain the word “customer. While I’m not a betting man, my money says you can’t do it. The very reason companies exist is to serve and provide something of value to customers. Yet in many large companies, customer satisfaction is squelched by internal management processes and bureaucracy. Being out of touch with customers is for obvious reasons very dangerous to the sustainability of a business. But in today’s world of social and immediate communication and companies that can literally be founded and scaled in days, it can be deadly.
As President of SAP Ariba, a start-up that was acquired by a large enterprise, I think a lot about how I can ensure that every employee is focused on the success of our customers and that they understand the problems we can solve for them. Because in today’s hypercompetitive business environment where upstarts are creating new models this is the only sure way to survive.
You don’t have to be a startup to perform like one. Even as a unit within a large enterprise you can think and act in ways that fuel game-changing innovations and results. How?
1. Get employees to spend time at the front line. From the back office to the front office, every employee should spend time with customers. Make it a requirement for employees to work in customer service roles for a time. Or introduce shadowing programs. You’ll see immediate payoffs – employees live the processes inside the business and experience first-hand whether they actually provide value to the customer. If they don’t, you’ve empowered them to make a case for introducing change.
2. Co-innovate with customers. There is no question that your products and services define your business. So why leave it to a team that is layers removed from your customer to develop them? Ideas can come from anywhere. And your customers are full of great ones. Move your product and engineering teams closer to them. And provide ample opportunity for them to interact and exchange ideas that inspire new thinking. Your solutions will be better for it.
3. Don’t be afraid to get your CEO involved. When I hear about customer situations and people tell me “don’t worry about this, it is an operational detail,” it sets off an alarm. Because there’s no such thing. Execution – whether at the strategic or tactical level – needs to be flawless. Dig in and understand what’s going on. And if you can’t, you know your customer doesn’t either. Work with your team to get to the core of the issue and then improve it. And if necessary, re-imagine or change large-company processes that are getting in the way. It is easiest to do this on the back of a customer engagement.
When it comes to success, yours is inextricably linked to that of your customer. So take a page from the startup book and get inside the heads of your customer. Walk in their shoes. Be flexible. And move fast. Your business will thank you for it.