It’s intuitive that organizations should manage oriented to serve their customers, because it’s the customers who keep them in business. Yet, in the name of “shareholder value,” many organizations continue to put short-term results at the forefront of their decision-making and this ends up damaging the long-term success of the organization to the detriment of its owners.
Harvard Business Review, January-February 2010, in an article called “The Age of Customer Capitalism” by Roger Martin states that “for three decades, executives have made maximizing shareholder value their top priority. But evidence suggest that shareholders actually do better when firms put the customer first.”
The author continues: “Peter Drucker had it right when he said the primary purpose of a business is to acquire and keep customers.”
Clearly, we serve our customers in the service of our mission. Our mission is why we exist as an organization. Our mission is to provide our customers with products and/or services that satisfy some intrinsic need.
The equation is simple:
Shareholder Returns = f (Customer Satisfaction)
Shareholder returns is a function of and positively correlated with customer satisfaction, as HBR notes. If we serve our customers well, the organization will thrive–and so will the owners—and if we do this poorly, the organization will die—and the owners will “lose their shirts”.
The problem with concentrating exclusively on stock price is that we then tend to focus on short-term returns versus long-term results, and the shareholder ends up worse off in the end.
“The harder a CEO is pushed to increase shareholder value, the more the CEO will be tempted to make moves that actually hurt the shareholders…short-term rewards encourage CEOs to manage short-term expectation rather than push for real progress.”
The article cites companies like Johnson & Johnson and P&G that “get it.” They put the customer first and their shareholders have been rewarded handsomely—“at least as high as, if not higher than, those of leading shareholder-focused companies.”
One good example of how J&J put customers first is when in the 1982 Tylenol poisonings, in which seven Chicago-area residents died, J&J recalled every capsule in the nation, “even though the government had not demanded it.”
Another good example in the article is Research in Motion, the maker of the BlackBerry. They recognized the importance of the customer versus the focus on the shareholder and already “in 1997, just after the firms IPO, the founders made a rule that any manager who talked about the share price at work had to buy a doughnut for every person in the company.” The last infraction by the COO had him delivering more than 800 doughnuts—the message was heard loud and clear.
These examples are in seemingly stark contrast to the recent handling by Toyota of its brake problems, in which there has been delayed recalls and the government is now investigating. As The New York Times (8 February 2010) reported: “The fact that Toyota knew about accelerator deficiencies as far back as December 2008 “raises serious questions about whether car manufacturers should be more forthcoming when they identify a problem, even before a recall,” said Robert Gifford, the executive director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, a nonprofit group that seeks to advise British legislators on air, rail and road safety issues.” Note: this is out of character for Toyota, which historically has been a car company known for its quality and safety.
As a long advocate for User-centric Enterprise Architecture, I applaud the organizations and the people that put the customer first—and by this, I mean not by words alone, but in deeds. It is easy to put the customer into our mission and vision statements, but it is another to manage our organization with a true service creed.
While the HBR article emphasizes short-term shareholder value as main culprit diverting us from a positive customer-focus, there are really numerous distractions to realizing the vision of a customer service organization. Some examples include: organizational politics that hinder our ability to accomplish our mission; functional silos that are self-serving instead of seeking the best for the enterprise; certain egocentric employees (a minority) that put personal gain or a lack of strain above a service ethos; and of course, greedy and corrupt individuals that seek to profit at the expense of the customer, perhaps even skimping on product quality and customer service, thereby even endangering health and safety.
While most people are essentially good and seek to do the right thing, the organization must put in place controls to ensure that our focus is never distracted or diminished from our customers. These controls include everything from establishing values, policies, processes, requirements management, product development, training, testing, measurement and reporting, and best practices implementation in order to ensure our finest delivery to the customers, always.