What Is The Achilles Heel of Strategy?
My colleague and I put our whole selves into our work talking with folks in the business, listening to customer conversations, reviewing research, looking at competitors and trends, looking at various approaches, evaluating these approaches and coming up with optimal course of action for our client and our client’s customers.
To our delight the strategy was accepted-approved by management. A month or so later we got busy on implementation planning. It was during the implementation planning when hard decisions had to be made that the commitment to the digital strategy unravelled. Our clients got the value of pursuing the digital strategy and they found themselves in a particular situation which called forth and drove a different set of choice and actions.
This is the Achilles Heel of strategy, every executive finds himself in a particular situation. And every situation has its own ‘logic’ and a momentum. As such it really it takes something to alter course and make any significant headway. It takes resolve – fierce resolve, the kind of resolve that grabs you and keeps hold of you. It is not the kind of resolve that is created through the intellect.
Why Don’t We Do What We Know We Should Do?
Have you wondered why your organisation sucks at being authentically customer-centric: practicing relationship marketing, client centred selling, pleasing customer service? Have you wondered why it is that your organisation sucks at calling forth the best from your people?
Now and then someone speaks and their speaking is wisdom. Today, I share with you the wisdom of David Maister as articulated in his great book ‘Strategy and the Fat Smoker‘:
“In business, strategic plans are also stuffed with familiar goals: build client relationships, act like team players, and provide fulfilling motivating careers. We want the benefits of these things. We know what to do, we know why we should do it, and we know how to do it. Yet most businesses and individuals don’t do what’s good for them….
The primary reason we do not work at behaviours which we know we need to improve is that the rewards … are in the future; the disruption, discomfort and discipline needed to get their are immediate…..
Our default pattern and why it doesn’t work
When it comes to improving performance at the individual, team or organisational level we tend to follow a self-defeating pattern. I have seen this pattern played out again and again over the last 10+ years as organisations have grappled with relationship marketing, CRM, customer experience, employee engagement, digital. Here’s what David Maister says:
We start self-improvement programs with good intentions, but if they don’t pay off immediately, or if a temptation to depart from the program arises, we abandon our efforts completely – until the next time we pretend to be on the program.
That’s our pattern. Try a little, succumb to temptation, and give up. Repeat until totally frustrated. Unfortunately, there is rarely, if ever, a benefit from dabbling or trying only a little. You can’t get half the benefits of a better marriage by cutting out half your affairs, cure half the problems of alcoholism by cutting out half the drinks or reduce the risks of lung cancer by cutting out half the cigarettes.
You can’t achieve competitive differentiation through things you do “reasonably well most of the time.” You not only cannot dabble, but you also cannot have short-term strategies ….. The pursuit of short-term goals is inherently anti-strategic and self-defeating.
You are either seriously on the program, really living what you have chosen, or you are wasting your time.
Why strategic analysis and listening to customers is not the answer
I worked in an organisation which expended considerably time-effort-cost in doing NPS quarterly. We had access to the voice of the customer. And the voice tended to speak the same tune quarter after quarter. Why? Because the people in the organisation were not willing to change behaviour in any significant way.
Is it possible that setting up VoC listening programs are a ruse? A way of saying to yourself and others that you are serious about improving the customer experience so that you hide your unwillingness to change your behaviour, the behaviour of your team, your organisation? What does David Maister say?
Improving the quality of the analysis is not where the problem lies. The necessary outcome of strategic planning is not analytical insight but resolve.
What are the essential questions of strategy?
If we know the why-what-how of employee engagement, meaningful customer relationships, and customer loyalty then what are the strategic question? Here’s what David Maister says:
The essential questions of strategy are these:
 Which of our habits are we really prepared to change, permanently and forever?
 Which lifestyle changes are we really prepared to make?
 What issues are we really ready to tackle?
Now that’s a different tone of conversation and discussion (and the reason that real debate is so often avoided).
What am I getting at here?
To come up with products that enrich the lives of customers requires resolve, analysis is insufficient. To create-deliver truly personalised-relevent marketing requires resolve, analysis and marketing technology are insufficient. To call forth the kind of service that generates gratitude from customers and makes them feel good about doing business with your organisation requires resolve, analysis-outsourcing-technology are insufficient. To orchestrate an end to end customer experience that calls forth customer loyalty requires formidable resolve, VoC and customer journey mapping are insufficient. Put different, dabbling won’t do; it occurs to me that most are merely dabbling.
I say, it is worth listening to David Maister once more:
There is no shame in aiming for competence if you are unwilling to pay the price for excellence. But don’t try to mislead clients, staff, colleagues or yourself with time-wasting, demoralising attempts to convince them that you are actually committed to pursuing the goal.
Relax, it’s ok to be just ok
As I get present to the world of business as it is and as it is not, I get present to the following and contradicts all the evangelising about customer focus, customer service, customer experience, customer relationships and customer-centricity:
1. Almost all businesses are unexceptional. They provide ok products (that do the job well enough). They provide OK digital real estate (websites, social media, apps, mobile). They provide OK stores. They hire OK people. They provide OK customer service – whether in stores or via the call-centres. And they generate an OK end to end customer experience, by default. As a result they do OK – they survive and make OK profits.
2. It is only against this background of OKness that the exceptional can and does show up. It is because almost all banks and insurance companies are ok that USAA glow so brig and htly. It is because most digital retailers are OK that Amazon shines brightly. It is because most high street retailers are OK that John Lewis and Waitrose (part of the John Lewis Partnership) shine brightly. It is because most organisations provide OK customer service that Zappos and Zane’s Cycles shine brightly.
Are the Tops are the biggest obstacle to your organisation becoming a “Customer Company”?
Some of you have questioned my emphasis on the Tops and their critical importance to any successful shift towards your organisation becoming a “Customer Company”. Some of you have asked me why it is that I have focussed on the Tops and not the Middles and the Bottoms. The answer is twofold.
First, there is the fact that every system has certain points that have much higher leverage than others. Isn’t that what we are looking for when we map the customer journey, assess the customer experience, and look for the “moments of truth” – the interactions that really matter and leave customers happy or unhappy, promoters or detractors? Ask yourself who you would approach and seek to convince/persuade if you wanted to trigger major organisational change. Would you approach the sales rep or the call-centre agent or would you approach one or more people in the C-suite?
Second, there is my 20+ years of experience at the coal-face of organisational change and business performance improvement in its many disguises. Yes, the Middles and Bottoms have some capacity to resist/impede change initiated by the Tops. What is missed is that they rarely have the capacity to initiate major organisational change nor to bring it to an end abruptly. This capacity, this power, lies with the Tops.
Never underestimate the Tops addiction to control and the fear of losing it!
Allow me to share a real life example with you. This example is provided by Judith E. Glaser in her book Creating We. In this book she shares the story of a weight loss company and its shift toward customer-centricity. Here is an abridged version of her story:
Major change – or transformation – usually involves a huge shift in power that takes place across a company. In the 1990s, a weight-loss company was experiencing customer defection at a high rate….
Customers were defecting from their programs and, worse than that, they were telling other potential customers that the company was awful…… The company was getting a bad reputation for high cost/low value…..
The company leaders didn’t believe how serious the situation was. They felt that Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig were no match for their billion dollar powerhouse. But they were wrong and the feedback proved it.
……. we did extensive customer research, as well as franchise research among their 4,500 sales consultants, and discovered that the hard-sell style did indeed cause customers to rebel at some point and to spread the word that the company was insensitive, pushy and only out for money.
….. we engaged hundreds of internal consultants and totally revamped the sales approach, and, most of all, its relationship to its customer. The company changed its value proposition ……. we created a sales-training process to teach everyone how to be sensitive to customers, to talk and partner with them……. the program was called “Partnership Selling”….
Customers loved the new approach, and sales consultants did, too. Interestingly, however, the new approach created great problems for the leadership team.
The previous hard-sell approach…… enabled the company to track each sales consultant’s every move. Each was trained to memorize a sales script and not divert from it….. This highly structured, predictable, customer insensitive approach enabled them as a company to track what everyone did and said down to the last word, giving the company control of every customer interaction. They rewarded sales consultants for getting the pitch perfect…….
The new customer-focused process reduced the control of the corporate headquarters and increased control for the sales consultants to manage the “customer experience”. Corporate went along with the new approach for a short while, maybe six months, then retracted the whole value proposition, for fear they were losing control. Corporate were unable to ensure that everyone followed the same process. They therefore were unable to reward the best sales consultants for following the script…… Their focus was totally internal and control-based.
…. during this time, the former president returned to run the company. He favoured the canned controlled interaction with customers and reinstated the old approach to selling. The hard sell returned and the customers left……
During the process, they were hell-bent on reinforcing their own way of doing business, dominating the customer and the sales organisation, and being in total control. After they went out of business, a few of the executives realised they had authored their own demise.
They executives were at the edge of new insights. They were taking the coaching and doing well. Then their insecurities kicked in, the fear of losing control returned, and they went back to square one. They could not leave their Comfort Zone of doing things the way they’d always been done. The only WE they could see was the familiar WE of their fellow senior executives, not the inclusive WE of the enterprise as a whole, and certainly not the WE of the customers.
When organisations are faced with change, fear often causes them freeze and hold on to the current way of doing things, even if its not working…..
Unhealthy cells stop taking nourishment from outside, stop taking feedback, and defend their position; and the president responded the same way. He stopped listening to the marketplace, to the customer, and defended his point of view; he was not open to feedback or to new ways of thinking. People had to please the boss, and they did.
The genesis of this post is a conversation that I had recently with Rod Butcher, a man who has been at the coal face of Customer Experience in a large organisation.
Standing outside of an organisation, as a bystander, it is easy to espouse the value and importance of the outside-in approach to Customer Experience. It seems so easy; just about everything is easy when seen from a distance. If on the other hand you have spent time in the ‘belly of the whale’ you get a visceral appreciation for the huge importance of inside-out: what matters in the organisation, what doesn’t matter, what works, what doesn’t work, what gets done, what does not get done, what the people who really matter are willing to do and not to do….
Why are so many large companies struggling with genuinely taking a customer-centric approach? Why is the dominant issue with VoC the inability of the organisation to act on the voice of the customer? Why is it that despite all the talk of collaboration and social business there is so little genuine collaboration? Allow me to share two stories with you.
When I moved into my new home over 10 years ago gardening called to me; I had no experience of gardening. One day I found myself in a garden centre and a number of plants called to me. So I bought these plants home and set about gardening. That is when the obstacles arose. The soil in my garden didn’t match that required by the most expensive plants. Then there were issues to do with sunshine: some required lots of sunshine other liked shade; some needed lots of watering, others little….
Most of the plants struggled to thrive and many of these eventually died. Why? Because I was not willing to do what it took to provide what the plants needed. I had rather hoped that the I could just buy then, find a spot in the garden where I thought they looked good, plant them there, and water them time from time. That is to say I was looking for the plants to fit into my priorities, my way of doing things.
I recently visited friends who took great interest and pride in taking care of their precious plants: young olive tree, young lemon tree etc. I was shocked to find that both of these plants looked withered, dry, dead. Why? What happened? Clearly, they had not been looked after. Why? Because both of my friends had turned their attention to stuff that showed up for them as being more important. Put differently, my friends had failed to sustain their commitment to these trees. Why? Because they were not central to their lives; they were merely hobbies and or decorations.
What have a I learned about gardening? I have learned to start with a good understanding of my garden and then choose plants that will thrive in my garden. I have learned that if I really want acid loving plants in my garden, which does not support them naturally, then I first need to do the work of digging out a specific part of the garden and putting the right soil. And I have learned that I have to be love these plants so much that I am happily provide them with the regular care they need.
I’ll leave you to figure out the organisational lessons. For my part I agree with Rod Butcher: outside-in is not enough, what really matters is the willingness of the organisation to change, or not, from the inside-out.