Relieving Customer Anxiety

By David Belden

In my facilitation practice, I have worked with a wide array of companies. My usual focus has been on aligning teams around particular challenges. I have also established mentoring programs, run values profiles, and examined supply chain optimization.

Recently, I was asked to look at a different, and emerging, issue that I discovered is common to virtually all the organizations with which I am associated.

The client, a very large player in the government contracting arena, presented the issue to me as this: They have been working with a government agency for nearly eight years. The client has specified the work that needed to be done, and my client executed the work. For eight years, that was enough, and there were no significant problems in the relationship.

This year, however, the agency told my client that expectations had changed. The agency said that, for years, my client had provided the workforce to complete specified tasks. And they want my client to continue providing the excellent fulfillment work. But now, they also want my client to provide innovative suggestions to improving the process; making it more efficient, faster, and ultimately, cheaper. More importantly, they expect my client to help them anticipate the future!

This took my client by complete surprise, and raised a multitude of issues within its organization. The main concern was that the people who had been performing their work for the past many years were now being asked to redesign the work. They were also being asked to collaborate and dialogue on the customer’s expectations … something that had never been required in the past. This became a transition from task fulfillment to problem-solving.

Two Components of Any Organization

I believe that the core components of running any organization are a combination of two aspects, the first of which is process. Process is the delivery of the service or product for which a customer is willing to pay. I have learned two things about process:

1. Every process is designed to produce exactly the result that it delivers. If we are not getting the result we want from the way we do things, we must redesign the way we do them. The difficulty in process redesign is that the people who designed the original process often are locked into the system, and are not able or willing to completely rethink the process.

2. Eventually, all business issues will be solved by process. No matter what the business, we are all constantly refining our chain of supply to make it more competitive. We either shorten the chain by eliminating steps altogether, or we disintermediate some of the sub-suppliers to the chain by automating the work that in the past required human intervention.

Most of the companies I have worked with over the past 13 years as a Professional Outsider have focused almost exclusively on process. To their customers, they defend their own processes, believing them to be unique.

We often believe that our primary contribution to customers is to convince them to trust that our process is superior. That engenders a belief that we have now taken our offering forever out of the realm of commoditization. We forget that a product or service is a commodity when the customer knows, or thinks he knows, enough about it to shop the specifications to competitors. We know that we are considered a commodity when we start selling to the purchasing department instead of the president.

What I am seeing in an ever-increasing trend since the economic shift in 2008 is that all offerings from all companies are becoming a commodity at a highly accelerated pace. No sooner has a company perfected a seemingly unique process than it is overtaken by a new, exciting, and even more intuitive technology that either makes the process irrelevant, or at best reduces it to a minor link in the overall chain of supply. It finally seems to be dawning on many of my clients that improving process only slows, but never stops, the slide toward commoditization.

If our process is well-designed, but we’re still not getting the results we expect, then we need to look at the second aspect of profitable and sustainable organizations;

People

The client I mentioned in the beginning of this article faced the same challenge I hear from all my other clients. He said that they have great people for the work that they do. It is all technology, and they have some exceptionally skilled developers, programmers, network administrators, etc. The problem is that they are all doers. They are what Daniel Pink, in his latest book, Drive, describes as information workers in an era that requires conceptual workers.

The difference here is critical. Information workers are perfectly capable of performing well-defined tasks. The task may require great skill and ability. Task-based performance, however, does not require a great deal of spatial thinking, and is quickly perceived as a commodity. Problem-solving demands something other than skill set. It demands a completely different mindset.

And this is the crux of the matter. In the Vistage group I facilitate, all 17 companies are in growth mode. They are all seeking to hire more employees. The one thing they all agree upon is that they are not willing to hire the same quality of mediocrity they had prior to 2008. They are looking for problem-solvers and solution providers. They are seeking conceptual workers, not just conceptual thinkers. This means that it is not enough to have great ideas. We also have to find people who can execute them. And they are not finding them in anything approaching abundance.

In an age where customers expect that we are going to provide more than basic services, that we are going to suggest improvements, shorten delivery time, under-promise and over-deliver, etc. etc., where do we find the people who can do this?

Part of the problem, as various writers and speakers are pointing out, is that our educational system is geared to graduate people who have learned to execute, not to think. Many of our employees possess a very significant tool bag. They come to us with impressive university degrees in a variety of disciplines. They have all the certifications that we stipulated in our recruiting advertisement. They have fulfilled all vocational prerequisites.

What they have in skill set, they often lack in mindset. The mindset we require today is innovative and collaborative, not specialized and isolated. It is no longer enough to be able to do a job. We now have to be able to solve problems, and even more importantly, anticipate challenges that will emerge in a highly dynamic future.

Once this question of changing client expectations emerged from my government contracting client, I began researching the subject with all my other clients, as well as several Vistage members in the Baltimore and D.C. areas. Vistage provides me with a database of more than 400 small to medium-sized local companies, and a total of 15,000 companies globally.

It turns out that what my client was experiencing is a universal trend! Every single company I talked with has confirmed that their customers are raising expectations, desiring a forward thinking response from their suppliers rather than a simple reaction to a request.

Customers are increasingly expecting suppliers to anticipate needs and changes in their area of expertise. It is now incumbent upon the supplier to propose new technologies, end-to-end supply chain management, new social media venues, new forms of advertising, new space designs for virtual offices, new communication possibilities for remote locations, new ideas for lines of business, new potential partners for collaboration. And the list goes on … Our customers expect us to relieve the pervasive sense of anxiety permeating the marketplace!

While there is general agreement in my client base that a new type of employee is needed, there is no agreement on where to find them. Dan Pink suggests hiring liberal arts majors for their generalist knowledge, then training them for skill. At the same time, enrollment in Liberal Arts majors is at a record low at universities. Seth Godin encourages young people to become “linchpins” wherever they are employed.

Yet, Clay Shirky tells us that our current employees are brimming with “cognitive surplus,” and usually devote their problem-solving skills volunteering online. He describes the millennial worker coming home from a boring job as an information worker, then dedicating all their creativity to editing articles for Wikipedia without compensation. Wherever these young people are, we certainly need more of them.

The first retreat I facilitate with new clients is focused on the dilemma described above. I use a tool called the Core Values Index™ (CVI). It is an improvement over the Myers-Briggs genre of assessment tools in that it measures what Carl Jung described as the innate self, rather than the personality. The Core Values Index™ gives us a viable indication of what a person will most likely succeed at over a long period of time. A colleague of mine, who is a technology genius, collaborated with me to use the CVI as well as a number of other indices to provide an assessment that can predict the probability that a person can function as a true conceptual worker. The tool is specifically designed to differentiate between conceptual thinkers and conceptual workers.

The retreat we facilitate around this data usually creates quite a stir. Everyone would like to be considered a conceptual worker, yet very few people possess the combination of intelligence, intuition, creativity, focus, and stamina required. And while most people would like to be considered conceptual workers, a company consisting only of conceptual workers would not be the ideal structure. Helping organizations find the most effective mix of core values is a major part of the work we do.

At ExecuVision, we also work with a tool for measuring whether an organization is geared toward innovation and creativity. The Management Innovation Index™ (MIX) is a survey taken at three levels — executive, managerial, and supervisory — to determine the discrepancy in perception of innovation and creativity within the organization. With that assessment, we can then institute metrics to chart innovative progress.

It seems to me that the entire area of identifying, attracting, and retaining creative and innovative people is the key to meeting ever-higher customer expectations. We must also create an organizational structure and culture that supports creativity. My experience is that the companies that focus on these elements are doing well, even in this challenging economy. As business owners, I believe our greatest difficulty will be to find enough people who can fill measure up to this challenge. The danger, of course, is that if we don’t, our competition somehow will.

A 12-year Vistage Chair, David Belden is the founder of the facilitation and executive development company, ExecuVision International. Educated in Denmark, David has 30 years of experience in international trade, garnered while living abroad and focusing on purchasing, importing, exporting and creating new operations in foreign countries. Follow David’s Twitter feed here.
Originally published: Jan 22, 2012

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