Perhaps the greatest danger at an unaligned supplier is unmanaged customer interactions. When we, as customers, call such a firm for help and customer service cannot help us, too often we are shuffled around like vagrants, occasionally ending up in infinite voicemail loops. If we do speak to employees they may none-too-subtly communicate their lack of urgency to solve our problem, thus poisoning a golden marketing opportunity.
Because that experience is all too common, a supplier can create a competitive advantage by aligning all of its functions on its most critical customers' expectations. This may sound like a business-to-customer approach, but at the heart of most business-to-business interactions are two people having a conversation.
At the heart of most business-to-business interactions are two people having a conversation.
When account contacts call aligned firms with questions or problems, there is no "that's not my job" response. Aligned employees know that maintaining customer loyalty is everyone's job. And such behavior does maintain—and increase—customer loyalty. When we call a firm where everyone tries to be helpful, our experience is so different, it creates a memorable impression. In aligned firms, customer service is not a department—it's an organizational commitment. And account contacts experience that commitment in virtually every call.
In aligned firms customer service is not a department—it's an organizational commitment.
Aligning a firm around strategic accounts starts with a firm aligning itself after systematically learning accounts' expectations. The firm then shares those expectations with all employees and asks them what the company needs to do to meet and exceed those customers' expectations consistently. The firm transforms employee answers into systems and processes for the company to develop and implement. Even though we say this in three sentences, firm alignment takes at least 12 to 36 months because it requires substantial organizational commitment, communication, and self-discipline. As with most of life's challenges, it's far easier to state our resolve than to actually develop and focus it long term.
As with most of life's challenges, it's far easier to state our resolve than to actually develop and focus it long term.
Once established, though, firm alignment tends to create a virtuous cycle, in which employees work smarter, not harder, and where teamwork increases employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, firm productivity, and profitability. This cycle, once started, makes it doubly difficult for competitors to duplicate service and relationship quality levels. Get most employees headed in the same direction and few things can stop them—unless customers change their expectations or employees get shifted to other priorities. To prevent priority shifting, we return to how critical it is to get the long-term buy-in of all firm executives. If any of them acts as if this commitment is flexible, they can turn alignment into another program du jour. This can instill or reinforce employee cynicism and can sometimes create higher cross-functional barriers for customers to leap over. "That's not my job" can return with a vengeance.
[W]hen sustainable competitive advantages are harder and harder to come by, aligning a firm around its strategic accounts offers just such an advantage.
If a firm can stay the course, though, the competitive advantage can become sustainable—if the firm continues to monitor customer expectations and redirect itself when those expectations change. The good news here is that, once employees align and focus on customer expectations, experiencing the firm as team, it becomes that much easier to redirect their efforts to serve changing customer needs. This is not the case with unaligned competitors, who still have to climb the first—and highest—mountain. At a time when sustainable competitive advantages are harder and harder to come by, aligning a firm around its strategic accounts offers just such an advantage.