5 Steps to Improving the CEO-Customer Relationship

As part of its Global Leadership Forecast 2014-2015, Development Dimensions International, or DDI, compiles the results of its Conference Board CEO Challenge® 2014 survey. In it, CEO respondents are asked to indicate how prepared they are for the future. Perhaps surprising, but maybe not so much, is the overall sentiment that these leaders don’t feel adequately prepared.

In the results, a total of 10 challenges surfaced that CEOs feel are keeping them from reaching that “sweet spot”; and, as it turns out, the top four are focused on human capital. Today, we are most interested in only one of those, however; and that is customer relationships. This is the factor respondents ranked #2 in terms of importance, yet only 45% claim to feel very prepared to manage them. 

Experts agree that having the ability to build those customer relationships is critical. Author Paula Phelan lists it as one of the top five essential characteristics of a successful CEO, defining it as: “Meets with customers and…articulates customer needs, challenges and business goals.” The question is: if you don’t have it, is it something that can be developed? I say absolutely.

Consider these 5 tips:

  1. Research—It’s necessary for you to understand customers from the point of view of those who interact with and/or know them best. Talk with front-liners in the company to get their input. Ask open ended questions about conversations and feedback. Take notes.

  2. Get Facetime—Then, go to the source. Face time with customers is imperative. You need to go with an open mind and a widely open time slot so that you can dedicate yourself to being present with them, hearing what they have to say, and then seeking to understand exactly what they’re telling you (with and without words).

  3. Foster an Aligned Culture—Understanding the importance of customer relationships cannot begin and end with you. Everyone within your company must see it as an imperative on an ongoing basis. It must become a part of the company’s fabric—interwoven into missions, visions, goals, performance reviews, and rewards.

  4. Take Everything Seriously—When you’re so closely tied to a company, it can be very tough to take outside feedback or criticism on a pet project or direction. But what many companies have learned the hard way is that discounting customers’ opinions or input is done at their own peril. Take everything you learn and make note. Mull over it yourself and then bounce it off your executive team. Input not immediately acted upon should not be discarded, but tucked away for reconsideration at an appropriate time in the future.

  5. Be grateful—Let your customers know you appreciate their input. A ‘thank you’ at the time is great, and a handwritten note is even better. Of course, the best way you can thank a customer is to act on their input.
    When managing customer relationships effectively is your focus, the outcome for the business can and should be dramatic. Whitney Wood said it well in a recent Inc. magazine article: "If you handle it right, the dialog between you and your customers can become the lifeline of your business. To establish and maintain a healthy flow, customer feedback must result in change your customers can see. Change is the most powerful currency to reward vocal and consultative customers."