This is the fourth part of our ongoing series designed to understand some of the dynamics that help explain how companies in the Walker Index outperform the market by over six-to-one. So far, we have explored the dynamics of Relevance and Alignment, Team and Resources, and Information Gathering. In this entry, we will focus on the role that Communication plays in supporting and reinforcing the customer listening process.
Mary Young and James E. Post published an article in 1993 that outlined the approaches that world-class companies use in communicating with employees. Even though the article is a bit dated and focuses on employee communication, the content is still quite relevant. Moreover, I would make the argument that the principles work equally well when considering how to communicate with customers.
The eight approaches outlined by Young and Post were as follows:
1) The CEO’s role as communicator – Young and Post make the case that the CEO has to not only be the chief communicator, but also must be a believer in communication. Those who excel in this tend to have frequent communication, reinforce their vision, are good listeners, are willing to answer tough questions, and are more disposed to quickly responding to sensitive topics.
2) Walk the talk – If you talk about being committed to customers, make certain your actions reinforce that – for example, make certain your infrastructure is designed to serve customers effectively, and make certain you view your processes from the customers’ perspective.
3) Be Open to Two-Way Dialogue – Surveys and other listening methods are a good way to start gathering the perspective of customers, but customers want (and expect) more. In an age of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets, customers expect a two-way dialogue. At a minimum, be certain you are communicating back what you learned, what your action steps are, and when customers can expect to see improvements.
From an internal employee perspective, be certain that employees have an outlet to share their thoughts and ideas on how to improve. This personalizes the experiences for the employee and helps them to see how they can contribute to the bigger picture – plus, from an execution perspective, employees will often be able to identify with the issues the customers articulated and will often have thought of possible countermeasures to address those issues.
4) Face-to-Face Communication – Customers want you to close the loop and to do it in a way that is personal; when possible, a face-to-face session can help to not only address issues that you have learned about that particular customer’s experience, but can also have an ancillary benefit of providing a framework for strategic account planning.
Employees, too, want to engage in a face-to-face conversation. Given geographic dispersion of companies, it may not be feasible (or cost-effective) to have the CEO (or Chief Customer Officer) visit every single location; however, the management of each location can and should endeavor to engage in a face-to-face communication process to ensure the core messages are being sent and to engage in the two-way dialogue that Young and Post recommend.
5) Having a Shared Plan of Communication – While the CEO can be the chief communicator, it is incumbent that all employees be aware (and committed to) the key messages you wish to send to customers. This means that a rigorous, detailed plan of communication should be developed to ensure messages are reinforced in a consistent manner at the level that makes the most sense. One method in a B2B context divides the core messaging between two groups:
Senior Management – Addresses the “why,” “what,” and “when” of changes customers can expect related to strategic initiatives that emerged from a customer listening program
Account Managers – Address the “who,” “how,” and “what” of the changes – in other words, those that are generally more focused at a customer vs. systemic level.
6) The Bad News/Good News Ratio – It is tempting to focus only what is working well; however, if you focus on only the positive, it can suggest that you did not hear the pain points that customers are experiencing, which can further imply that you are not really customer-focused. So, you should plan to share some of the less-than-stellar feedback – it will not only illustrate that you are listening and that you are intent on improving, but it will also make the good news more believable.
7) Tailor the content to the audience – When communicating, it is important to consider who your intended audience is, what their needs and expectations are, and what methods work best in communicating with them. Even within an account, there are often different strategies for communicating – for example, the way you communicate with your client’s CEO will no doubt be different from how you communicate with your front-line contacts.
Also realize that your employees are a target audience as well. This means making certain you are communicating a consistent set of core messages both internally and externally in ways that best resonate with the unique stakeholder groups.
8) Communication is a process, not an event – Young and Post suggest that companies migrate from communication being a transactional event that is focused on tactics to building a focus on process and strategy. They further recommend that firms focus on some specific aspects in this process:
a. Communicate the what, why, and how – Tell a comprehensive story in order to set the expectation of what will occur from this point forward.
b. Be timely in communicating – This is more important in our fast-paced, highly connected environment of today than it was when this article was published in 1993. It is better to communicate in a timely fashion, even if that means you do not have all the answers. Not doing so risks a loss of engagement and trust from your customers.
c. Continuously communicate – This is particularly important if you are being timely in your communication – new information and details will emerge, which means you should communicate that not only as soon as possible, but also in an iterative fashion to reinforce the message.
d. Make the connections – When describing what you learned, be sure to connect how your actions at a macro level will impact the experience the customers has at a micro level – in other words, make certain the message is relevant. For employees, tying how their work will lead to greater levels of customer loyalty (and the financial impact this has on the firm) is extremely important in securing commitment and buy-in.
Having a disciplined approach to communicating both internally and externally will help to ensure that what you learned in your customer listening process is internalized by both customers and employees. However, this internalization by itself is not enough – the communication must represent the initial action that the company takes on the results. This initial action must be followed up by action in both a macro (company) level as well as a micro (account) level. We will tackle the topic of Action in the next entry of this series.
Mark A. Ratekin
Senior Vice President, Consulting Services
 Young, Mary & Post, James E. (1993). Managing to Communicate, Communicating to Manage: How Leading Companies Communicate with Employees. Organizational Dynamics, 22(1), 31-43.