People, customers, culture … not dollar, greed and cutthroat behaviour

People, customers, culture … not dollar, greed and cutthroat behaviour

Financial Services companies are back in the news again following Greg Smith’s resignation letter from Golden Sachs being published as an Editorial by the New York Times this week. Reinforcing the disdainful public belief that all banker’s are fuelled by greed and that the greedier you are the more career success you will get and that the reward for that success is massive salaries and bonuses.

Fuelling these fires in public may be indeed be driven by the altruistic reasons he states or hide a personal vendetta Greg Smith has against his former employer, but it does ring true. The stench of this fire will drift across more banks and stay rancid for some time. Just when Bankers are desperate to regain trust and rebuild customer confidence, they are facing yet more scrutiny that will achieve precisiely the opposite.

To do this, Financial Companies must focus more on how they work inside their organisations, what their beliefs are, how their culture must support these beliefs and that their people must represent this. To regain trust and improve their reputations, the banks have to put their customer’s front and centre into this process. They will need to ensure that to deliver customer driven initiatives, they change company centric processes. The 2 key words are Culture and Customers.

There is a great article by Shawn Parr in Fast Company Why Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch. A focus on getting culture right brings significantly better return on investment than blindly chasing the dollar…whatever the analysts expect. It needs to start from the top…but those at the top are often the same that got them (and unfortunately all of us) into this mess.

Which brings to mind that Lloyd Blankfein described Goldman Sachs as “doing God’s work”… chasing the dollar at all costs is killing their reputation, their people are noticing and soon their customers will just say no.



Breaking down the internal barriers is the start of growth.

Breaking down the internal barriers is the start of growth.

Customer centric results are rarely delivered by company centric processes, yet, while all companies are scrapping for growth and reaching out to customers with new initiatives, a lot are struggling to deliver the experiences that they devise for their customers, because the corporate mindset is not aligned.

Marketing and brand people are frequently collating customer learning and insights that identify fertile growth areas. Something then goes wrong. Their internal machines work on a company centric or channel centric or silo centric premise and process. Us and them. Me not we. Competitive not collaborative. Yesterday not tomorrow.

Companies have been used to driving shareholder returns often by maximising efficiency and cost cutting to an extent that these are now deeply ingrained in the corporate psyche. Each part of the company has had a distinct role in delivering these bottom line successes. These different elements of the organisation have slowly become separated into big business units – often led as a separate mini organisation. They have layers of bureaucracy and tell their own versions of the company story. They’ll have their own separate advisors (often advising on the same thing as other units) and work to different KPIs. Communication is great up & down the separate Units but poor across the company. Top down is the only channel – and often with messages for the ears of the analysts waiting for the next quarterly profitability reports.

To drive customer driven growth, many companies must change on the inside before they succeed on the outside. They must move from the mentality of “the business we do” to that of “the business the customer needs”. The old marketing thinking, dominated by Mad Men, was to create desire by telling beautiful stories in advertising. Making the customer want your products. 21st C branding is all about making products or offering services that customers need.

The whole company needs to have the customer in their focus in everything they do. The company purpose and culture will be driven by the customer. The internal processes will need to change to be customer centric.

This kind of change is tough. Big and small companies are good at what they do and that’s easy to be the prime focus. Marketing is one area that perhaps can help this change.  Communication and collaboration are the fundamental basics of a marketing approach. Insight and messages are the bread and butter of the customer dialogue for brand led growth. Bringing these skills into the company processes with the outside in view that marketers have can help. Bringing creativity and collaboration is the best way to break down the silo mentality.

Trialling new, small cross functional teams with a customer driven objective will begin to create something new that can show success to the rest of the organisation’s separatists. Learning to think differently as a team, in a collaborative environment, with the blessing of top management and without the restrictions of the day to day, quarter by quarter focus, is achievable quickly if you pilot it. Aim at a few, short term outputs. You shouldn’t outsource creativity or collaboration. Learning to do it yourself bring huge benefits and allow success to positively infect those around these teams.

Just as importantly, whatever the objective of these pilot groups, whatever the outputs they are tasked with, the voice of the customer must be there throughout. Use customers in these creative sessions. Ensure the outputs are shaped with the customer or end user throughout – not simply as a check or box to tick at the end. Today this is possible with advances in online research. This is possible with the rapid advancement of social media platforms that allow private communities – staff and/or customers to upload their own content, share information, blog and chat or have sessions like webinars and programs to encourage collaboration and sharing. Community thinking works with staff as well as with customers.

A culture of trialling changes on the inside via small, well supported pilots will feed back into the organisation and become a lighthouse across the silos, a sign of things to come. By leading with the customer’s outside in view, driven by those with the customer insight (sales, brand, telesales, marketing, stores – whatever) will bring the platform for growth that is eluding companies hampered by internal barriers. Alignment and cooperation will be the outcome of these pilots, plus the customer driven outputs of each pilot group. A focus on finding successful customer initiatives break down internal barriers and creates an culture where all staff are empowered to deliver value to customers, independent of which department they belong to.

Changing on the inside with the customer driving the change will turn the fertile areas for growth into a reality.

Value Add -er

Value Add-er

Too many people interpret value in the context of price. Especially in the economic environment we are working in today. But if value is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak, is that beholder a consumer, a customer or a user?

There are value ranges in supermarkets which is the basic no frills own label products. There are take away food offers which offer ‘all this’ for £6.99 – with the emphasis on the price. These products are treated as a transaction. These supermarket goods and take away meals are consumed and it makes sense to treat them as a transaction led by price for those consumers.

Many companies have customers, not consumers, who use the service themselves or provide it for their own customers. The worry is that many businesses, when dealing with suppliers, are using heavy procurement processes and tough tenders that also focus on the cost as the most significant differentiator in a decision to award a contract. These processes focus on price as it’s an easily compared metric. But these businesses are not selling a product that is quickly consumed but a service that is used.

This service is experienced by their customers and their staff. This experience has many elements in the customer journey that sends signals of understanding the customer (& the staff) that add or take away value to the service. These small elements and traits are not always so easy to measure. Procurement can miss them. But customers and users don’t. These elements of satisfaction can have metrics. Preference and word of mouth are measureable.

Designing the service from the customer’s point of view and getting the staff on board to highlight those stories that illuminate the customer’s needs will differentiate that service over and above a price led transaction.  Those that use the service will prefer it over and above other similar services if it feels the most in tune with their needs; is most helpful; if it “gets them”. That is derived from regular dialogue with them and needs great listening and being able to interpret insights. It’s important to be sure to use all the company’s people, who touch the customer journey or can influence word of mouth, to be able to tell the same brand story and then subsequently share their own insights back to the company – so as to continually learn and further hone the service.

Value added service for customers and users allow businesses to not only grow ahead of their competition but also to do so at a higher price. Profitable growth.

Marketing Small Businesses

Marketing Small Businesses

Had a very productive session with a small business this week, when bringing the company together around a new brand proposition. It’s interesting to note that if all the changes that are affecting marketing & branding in the 21st Century is hard to grasp for some big multinationals, it’s pretty mindboggling for those SME’s who represent the engine of most economies.

As people, the leadership of these small companies are aware of the big marketing tools like Advertising and Social Media but know that to fully engage with them is costly, confusing and time consuming – in many ways they are scared off. But given that most are B2B organisations, the fundaments are actually relevant to them.

As a service focussed company, there are two important shifts that are usually needed to help bring  a marketing approach  that can help them grow.

First, a deeper understanding of their customers’ needs (current and future).

Second, to reframe their service offer, less as a series of products, but as a way of helping meet those customer needs.

Making these 2 shifts will allow the company to tell a new brand story from an outside in point of view. These new stories will make future growth more achievable. Most small businesses are constantly trying to sell. Often, they are all consumed in the process of selling and doing, they spend all their time in the business they’ve always done. There’s no time left to think about where their business could go…let alone how to get there. By chasing the sell, they can end up differentiating more and more on price and price alone. This means their offer is treated as a transaction rather than a service

Making these 2 shifts, will allow their service to be more valued – over and above the transactional price negotiation. While there will be a fair bit of change in getting to understand their customers and amending their dialogue and future conversations with these customers, the cost will be mostly an investment in time. Time with their own people. It will also involve time for deeper conversations with their clients.

Both these “time investments” will be rewarding. There will be no need to have big, new, costly campaigns in marketing communications. It will need focus around clarifying the brand story and a way of sharing the customer insights amongst the whole company, so that the new story is told consistently and coherently by everyone. But the service will become more valued as customers will feel more engaged. And they will value that engagement over and above the price they may receive from competitors who offer a similar service. That customer-centric approach, when delivered, will also cause these customers to become advocates of the company and generate a better word of mouth for them too.

And positive word of mouth is the most valuable of all marketing communication there is today.



Running to stand still? Break the inertia, creatively.

Running to stand still? Break the inertia, creatively.


Do you feel like the hamster in the wheel? Running like crazy to stay where you are? Expending massive energy without moving onwards? Pressure is on to deliver more from less. Stress levels are rising as leadership expect new things faster while, at the same time, demanding nothing slips. The day to day processes are busier than ever, yet new growth needs something different to ignite change. Do you suspect external change is a great opportunity but the internal change needed to stimulate it is impossible to budge?

It’s never been as important for companies to develop new ideas, or as difficult to successfully launch them. After years of efficiency-driven cuts and bottom line focus, companies need new growth and meet new customer needs. Most of the skills required to address these needs have been eroded or outsourced by organisations. Marketing departments have been cut along with their budgets, yet leadership is demanding more from less in double quick time.

Companies see there are opportunities out there but are often stuck focused on the day to day processes needed to survive, or so concerned by gloomy predictions, that they become stuck in fear-fuelled inertia. Breaking out of inertia is vital as new ideas and innovations need to be tested quickly. Often, change needs to happen inside organisations in order to successfully create change & growth externally.

Innovation is no longer simply the focus for developing new, disruptive technologies and products.

Increasingly, companies are attempting to reshape their culture and physical work environments to encourage creative thinking across their enterprise.

But too many of the creative skills needed for change are being outsourced, yet new ideas that are owned and driven by internal people have more chance of being implemented.

One problem in attempting to instigate a new culture for encouraging creativity is that it can take time to set up. Failure should be treated as a positive learning experience and encouraged. At first, ideas are often generated in isolation of those they are intended to influence and this adds further time before the new ideas can be implemented. More time can lead to further pressure from leadership for the change, often adding to the inertia.

Perhaps the best idea is to consider smaller scale projects to create a short term actions in order to escape the inertia. To start to add some business creativity inside the organisation via a new initiative with a team that spans different silos – and include some “Doubting Thomases”. Give these teams’ space and time (a week or so) to try something new. Mentor these teams in benefits of collaboration and let them create some internal actions for change. Don’t put more stress on them – free them up to have fun in creating new things.

But make sure the context is clear. Interrogate the customers. Bring the competition to life. Use newcomers to the company in their first few days to represent customers or competition as part of their inductions. Create a map of opportunity that could your offer be outside & evaluate what is stopping you on the inside getting some new actions to address them.  Challenge the teams to create a momentum that gets noticed but via new initiatives that create a bit of a stir. Encourage them. Forgive them. Celebrate a failure & get them going again. Ensure they establish the barriers that stop a company experiment more freely. Maybe make the exercise all about breaking down such barriers!

By making the projects have an outside-in context in order to shape the initiatives and innovation, the possibility of change attaining growth increases. As changing the inside in order to deliver on the outside may allow the hamster wheel to move off its fixed axis and allow all that energy to burst forward and start a new momentum.

Fixing brand for the outside starts on the inside but with only with an outside-in view!

Fixing brand for the outside starts on the inside but with only with an outside-in view!

Had a quick coffee today with a small business owner who was struggling to change the focus of his company culture from one that was Sales driven to one that needed to offer more of an experience. He was struggling because they’d been successful and to stay successful he felt he needed to change. He wondered if a new brand would help but his view of what a brand is, suggested that it wouldn’t help. Yet. For brand change to work on the outside, they’d need to change the inside first…and fundamentally so.

A B2B service organisation is often driven by customer numbers – whether by driving new customers or focusing on client retention. Companies that have grown primarily by the former have a dominant sales culture that pervades the organisation and dictate the Silo hierarchies. Those that have grown by focusing on client retention have a dominant customer service culture that coordinates the organisation to be customer centric.

Both types of culture use marketing and brand practices to achieve their goals. In the former, Sales & Marketing are often under the same leadership and communications are judged on their tactical success in delivering numbers. Short term offers, usually price discounts, occasionally delivered “loudly”. For the latter, Marketing is focussed on understand customer insights, trialling solutions and offers with those customers and rolling out the offer to reward the customer’s experience of the service.

In the former, brand is used to carry the messages out to potential customers. You’ll hear terminology like direct, consistency, efficiency, offers, brand manuals. In the latter, brand influences the organisation’s culture, their service delivery, response times, their processes and capabilities as well as their external communications. Here, you’ll hear terms like dialogue, satisfaction, innovation, brand stories, effectiveness.

While each can be successful, what is really tough is to change from one to the other – especially if tried quickly. What can happen is that brand and marketing can be tasked to change the perception of the service before the internal offering is able to deliver it. Promising something, that is not then actually experienced, leads to rejection. These are empty promises. However well executed the promises are they will be empty. Price driven tactics cannot deliver a premium brand experience. Telling customers is not the same as listening to customers. Showing customers you are prepared to listen by a sms or email campaign isn’t enough. Changing your name or logo, to suggest you care or you are a premium offer, isn’t enough.

If success is not instant because the service offer is left unchanged, or the organisational silos remain disconnected and the company then blames Marketing for subsequent customer churn, then the understanding of brand and its influence remains old fashioned and so ineffective.

Brand will be effective once the organisation recognises the changes needed inside to affect those on the outside. By listening and talking to the customers – about what they value, what they want and what they will or might want – you’ll have a blueprint for change. These changes start on the inside – from the top of the company, to all their people on the customer journey that tough the experience of the service offer – by signalling change, recognising change, rewarding success, adding new companywide service KPIs vs. Sales KPIs will start to affect the internal culture. This can lead next to a change in where and how the service is experienced by the customers so that it is actually experienced by those customers and their reactions will create positive advocates and cause loyalty and importantly, recommendations much more powerful that a 50% short term discount. Indeed this is the premium service of the future.

Such change is hard. It is fundamental change. And brand can indeed help. 21st Century branding encourages the outside in blueprint for such change.

Ideation sessions – the importance of an outside in view

Ideation sessions – the importance of an outside in view

This week I participated in an ideation session which was set up to look at identifying new service extensions for a Utility company. The session was a half day, well run and great fun. It was facilitated professionally by an outsider which gained credence for the process too.

But it was a bit pointless.

There were good things about the session that included some smart insight on the issues facing the service and a focus the internal organisational barriers to new thinking. The session was positive and included some involving game-play and the psychology of how & why cross functional teams can come up with new ideas in different mind states. Finally, as in most brainstorms, there were some familiar ground rules – no negativity, no such thing as a bad idea, encouraging everyone to participate etc. What worked, and always does, is that the teams got out of their natural environment and roles – moved away from their screens and were allowed to create, to play, to contribute. They were equal contributors and (probably) able to not worry about what the boss may say/not say. Never undervalue this part of such sessions.

The objective was relatively clear, the sessions upbeat and a lot of coloured Post-It’s captured ideas that were collated and used to get a most-liked-ranking at the end by the whole group.

I suspect that the 3 most liked ideas will move forward and then stall. There are two reasons for this – firstly there was only scant interrogation/understanding of the customers – and very little on what was changing for them. The focus was more on existing customer service and how the organisation delivers against that. This is a relatively static and narrow view of the business looking outside at customers from inside via their existing delivery mechanism.

Customers are changing and are more demanding for better, more rounded, more rewarding experiences. What was interesting was that the ideation session was organised by marketing and the customer services department reported into Sales. There was only a little dialogue between customer services and the marketing team – and almost no real dialogue between marketing and the real customer.

Which means the innovation was being developed in a vacuum. The best thing that came out of the session was a clear understanding that all the internal people that touch the customer journey need to communicate better (& much more frequently) and that the customer view of a service offering was perceived differently than they expected and that a regular dialogue with the customer from a future facing perspective would be essential. I wasn’t sure that the urgency they expressed in improving this dialogue would be shared by the bosses who ran each silo – especially as the stated outcomes were weak and this by-product “aha” about dialogue would have a loud Homeric (Simpson) response of “D’oh! – You mean you don’t already! ”

The second reason why these outcomes were a “Fail!” came from too much dependence on “brainstorming” naivety – where all ideas are good. Actually, in the real world, all ideas are just ideas. Most new things fail. There needs to be an element of challenge, of debate and of being able to overcome a sceptical view. I think this should involve the same teams who participate in the creating phase – so that they learn to defend the idea, to test the rationale, to stretch the ideas, to learn to favour and hone someone else’s idea. This evaluation and debate stage is often done later in a process by different teams. The customer often gets to see the prototype ideas even later.

A few of the people found it really hard to think like a customer who was so different from themselves – so they would be adding ideas they thought they personally would like. A deeper understanding & representation of the customer was needed plus to see that they view the service from a broader, less static view that the business does. this different perspective becomes vital in ideation sessions. Real time dialogue, with real customers, always help ideas breathe in a real context.

Ideation sessions have great value if it involves an outside in approach to a business’s offer and the filtering down of ideas happens as part of the same session with input from customers.