'In bed' with your customers

Customer Intimacy
November 20, 1998

From the bowels of right sizing (ie redundancy) to being ICED or suffering an involuntary career event (ie being sacked), to process re-engineering (ie organisational change) comes yet another American business-speak construct: customer intimacy. The irony is that the author, though educated at Harvard Business School and now a Boston-based management consultant, is in fact Dutch.

The labelling of business concepts and the promotion of them is big business in the marketing of management expertise in the United States, but is counter-cultural or even anathema in most European countries.

Customer intimacy goes beyond customer-friendly behaviour or techniques to enhance customer satisfaction, as the author explains: "It requires taking responsibility for customers' results. It doesn't impose arm's length goodwill. It requires down-in-the-trenches solidarity, the exchange of useful information, and the cooperative pursuit of results." It is about metaphorically "getting into bed" with your customer, participating actively in the success of their business. The book abounds with cases of successful American supplier companies that have nurtured this customer intimacy with their client corporations and individual consumers. The book is divided into four parts, with several chapters falling under each customer intimacy - what it is and why it wins: "Flex the commercial imagination"; "Cultivate the human connections"; "Commit the corporation". The author feels strongly that the underlying premises of "being customer friendly" lead to what he terms partial solutions. In terms of loyalty or recognition programmes, for example, he claims that the underlying logic of them is to make the customer more loyal by providing them with a sense of personal attention, but in reality this "friendliness training, knowing customers' names and occasional freebies are a substitute for tangible value". He quotes the example of someone who may be offered frequent-flyer miles by airlines, but if the planes are frequently late will seek another carrier regardless of "loyalty miles".

The author's illustrations of poor customer care and the underlying assumptions of how and when to do "the appropriate thing" vis-a-vis customers is revealing. There are numerous good and bad practice examples, which unfortunately tend to be almost exclusively American in origin. From a case-study point of view, there is nothing inherently wrong with US-based cases, but there is an ever-widening gap between US and European approaches to management-based issues on quality management, marketing, etc. That makes the book less useful than it could have been in continental Europe, although still reasonably appropriate for the United Kingdom. The writing style is excellent, the author "speaks" his experiences and the concepts flow. He has developed the knack of business book writing, with all the key American jargon necessary for an airport book - "win together", "leveraging human resources", "strengthen the interface", "deliver fitting solutions", etc. If you can get past the American business-school speak, there are some interesting and worthwhile ideas, which go beyond the "have-a-nice-day" repertoire of customer-friendly behaviours. The notion of getting more involved in your customers' businesses, making them a success, necessitates a monumental change in the corporate psyche. As Machiavelli suggested in The Prince: "It should be borne in mind that there is nothing more difficult to arrange, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through than initiating changesI The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new."

Cary L. Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and pro-vice-chancellor, UMIST.

Customer Intimacy: Pick your Partners, Shape your Culture, Win Together

Author - Fred Wiersema
ISBN - 0 00 255821 1
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £20.00
Pages - 221

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