In 2007, thanks to many of you who reached out, I had the privilege of delivering over 75 speeches around the world—all in the quest to help your companies deliver a better customer experience.

What I learned is that in every part of the world making this work happen is a challenge. The struggle remains to connect the silos and get everyone on the same page—moving in a unified direction for customers.

In Brazil, for example, the challenges sounded uncannily the same (although much more beautiful-sounding in their language) as the challenges I heard from audiences and clients in New Jersey and San Francisco.

With all of these audiences, what we talked about is where they are making traction in the customer crusade, how they are making that happen, and what still gets in the way of moving past lip service and getting to action.

A Review of the State of the Crusade in 2007

Optimism Over Net Promoter

The Net Promoter concept and idea has taken hold the world over. The simplicity of one "ultimate" question is compelling. And it gives CEOs something to easily grasp and point to regarding a customer target. Those who have started to work through this concept have hit some walls, though none of them insurmountable. I state them here to hopefully prevent you from hitting them:

  1. Don't make Net Promoter just be about the "score." If you do, all you are doing is replacing the old customer satisfaction survey for the Net Promoter survey.
  2. Don't set arbitrary targets for how far you will improve. Especially, don't look at across all industries of Net Promoter scores and set yours. There are clear differences by industry. Don't set yourself up with a goal that isn't connected with your operation or customers. You'll be revising and revising and revising...
  3. Create the back-end action loop that the Net Promoter concept success is based on. The whole idea behind this concept is to identify customers who love you (Promoters) and those who don't (Detractors) and to tickle out the issues causing both situations. You must have a process for getting to those customers and resolving those issues and then driving wholesale change through your operation to fix the problem for all customers. If this sounds a lot like hard work—it is. But just setting up a stretch target without the work process behind it will have you treading water like you are now with the standard customer satisfaction survey approach.

Customer 'Service' Gaining Traction—If It Moves up From Underdog Position

I found myself face to face with quite a few customer service industry groups and conferences this past year. Those that are gaining traction have found a way to take the feedback that they receive from customers and create power in how they deliver it to the organization.

Gone are the passed-around excerpts of customer letters giving chapter and verse of how bad things are. In its place, they give the company hard, fast, real-time operational information. With some simple manipulation, many of these fired-up call centers now collect every piece of information that customers volunteer to them on calls and in emails and on the Web. And they trend it and bucket it by operational concern and issue.

This knowledge is power. And it is propelling these organizations and leaders into strategy planning and partnerships with the operations throughout the company that crave the gold they are mining from customers.

In moving from underdog to purveyor of information, these service operations are recasting their importance in the organization. And they are shifting their place in the food chain from just receiving what comes out the end (sorry...) to also determining the priorities of the organization.

CEOs Waiting for the Grassroots to Validate—Conflicted CEOs

In 2007, the customer seemed to have re-emerged as a priority on the strategic plans of CEOs around the world. I saw this first-hand as many of the largest corporations grappled with who should help the CEO make this commitment come to life.

Leaders have been assigned to become what I call the "human duct" tape of the organization—to unify the silos in working together. Groups were formed to drum up ideas. All this is good. What happened next is the reality-check.

Out of much of this activity, we saw leaders embrace the ideas, agree that they were important—then lob them out into the silos and to the field to see what sticks. In theory, the idea of customer focus is agreed to, but in practice, in many cases it has been left to the different parts of the operation to decide how they'll take action.

Translated, this indicates that CEOs remain conflicted about driving hard the customer agenda from their office. Generally (and I mean, very generally) speaking, what we are in right now in this cycle of intense customer focus is the first stage. The "commitment" is stated, but the metrics, the motivation, and rewards for behavior and the mechanics of how the organization will work together to achieve different and better results for customers have not yet been addressed in many cases.

Silos = Customer Bermuda Triangle

It's about the silos. This is one of the major slippery slopes working against the idea's gaining traction. With every audience, inside every business, this comes up. It's not the fact that the silos exist that's the problem. It's their lack of coordination and conflicting metrics. This is where leaders really do want the CEO to step up—to make it okay to work together—and to create unified metrics and new standards of performance that make people successful if they do so.

Today it's almost a renegade act in some cultures to work with someone else on a unified project, because that work is not on anyone's scorecard. But that's exactly what needs to happen in this customer work. The silo management approach doesn't work. Customer crusaders are creating noise around this issue, and they are taking a stronger stand about working on this issue first before taking on yet another set of (disappointing) projects that won't gel because the silos don't.

The Score Still Rules

For as much focus as there is on customers, the boldest declarations are still "how far will you move the score?" There are two things troubling about this.

First is that the customer initiatives continue to be led by the score, versus a clear mantra for how the company will be there or change or improve the experience for the customer. What higher purpose a company has for its customers and how it will get there should be the motivating factor for doing this type of work. But the score still is the motivator.

The second troubling thing that I continue to hear is that the scores that are selected are determined by external factors, such as competitive standing or where the company needs to be for the board to be happy. These scores continue to be set in a vacuum devoid of operational reality.

What's Working—What You Can Do to Gain Traction

Create Pockets of Optimism

We are finding that inside every organization there are pockets that carry the enthusiasm for this work and are executing actions that have people taking notice. Find out where this work is happening. Frequently, the field is the first to drive the customer-focus commitment past words to operationally relevant actions.

Champion this work when it is strong rather than policing it. Shine a spotlight on it to make the work known to others, and package the learning and practices.

Do Customer Math

Simplifying the end game is the answer for many of the companies that are gaining traction. Yes, we will continue to survey, whether it's the "Ultimate Question" or standard satisfaction or loyalty surveys. But what matters at the end of the day is how many customers is your company keeping.

By making the definitive indicator of success "customers into the business" versus "customers out of the business" as well as the increase of "customers who stay"—traction is being made. This is putting the customer work into the context of something simple that can be measured—that rivals the simplicity of making sales goals.

You can put a goal around lost customers and kept customers per year and growth by customer segment. And that ties directly to ROI. Most importantly, if people's reward and recognition are tied to this type of outcome goal, they will be prompted to find out why customers stay or leave.

This is prompting this next action by the crusaders who are creating traction:

Drastic Listening

The broken record I hear and see out there is this: Simplify and drive action. Many crusaders have found that there is no better way than having executives and others throughout the company call customers who have defected.

The companies that are making traction with this action keep it simple. They provide execs with 5-10 customers per month to call. And that's usually all it takes. They are finding that there is more power in the 20 minutes of listening to a customer who has taken business elsewhere explain why (often in an emphatic tone) than any five customer satisfaction survey report meetings.

They are following up this "drastic" listening with the work to categorize the issues—which are now taken personally and understood at a basic, human level. And they are getting traction because the execs rally to make the customer pain go away. The fact that these are the issues driving most customers away of course is tied to ROI, which connect everything very neatly and makes the work powerful, simple and attainable. At last.

De-Silo Something!

Let's face it, the silos' working together on projects is not organic inside all companies. The companies that are creating traction pick one project to start with, in order to build up the new competency and the process—of having everyone together working on a project... from beginning to end.

One great and tangible (read: operational and easy to understand) project that helps customers greatly and helps to build this competency is to work on your Web site experience. Today, we have our customers navigating our Web sites and it's like they are navigating our organizational charts. Bring in IT, marketing, sales, service, operations and everyone else that creates impacts or responds to customers via the Internet and map and rethink the experience.

Focus in on one area of your Web experience first, to keep things easiest to accomplish and not so insurmountable that people abandon ship before the learning to work together kicks-in.

Build a Simple Road Map

The customer leaders in corporations who are creating traction are clearly breaking the customer work into time-bound categories. We are finding that 90-day increments work very well. Doing so forces planning to break actions into specific timeframes, it is true; however, this is well worth the work.

Often, the customer focus transformation is seen as something long-term, with no clear payoff for years. We identify actions that can be taken in the first 90 days that are clear: For example, outbound calls to all customers who have defected are one action item.

This moves the customer work from something conceptual to the corporate mind-set of projects and project management.

To make this approach clearer, here is a 90-day road map that we typically build to create clarity and traction. You'll see below that these companies are moving quickly into operational actions that people understand:

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image of Jeanne Bliss
Jeanne Bliss is the founder of CustomerBLISS (, a consulting and coaching company, and the author of Chief Customer Officer: Getting Past Lip Service to Passionate Action.