Business

Have Remote Employees Lost Touch with Customers’ Needs?

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After months of successfully working from home, the finance, HR, and legal teams of a mid-sized bank decided that they were going to adopt a hybrid model, permanently. Covid-induced remote work had proven that physical presence wasn’t a requirement for productivity.

Some employees elected to be 100% remote, others came in a few days a week, and those who wanted to work in the office were given safe spaces to do so. It all seemed fine at first; productivity stayed high. Yet after several months, they began to realize that something was missing from their daily conversations — or rather someone. 

One operations leader put her finger on it when she said, “We used to start meetings talking about customers. Now we hardly mention them at all.”

They’re not alone.

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While much has been written about the need to keep teams connected to each other in a virtual environment, losing your organizational tether to the customer is more insidious, and perhaps even more dangerous.

Here’s what we’ve observed in our clients: Before their companies went remote or hybrid, most employees throughout the organization had some sight line to customers. Even if they didn’t interface with them directly, they had regular conversations with customer-facing teammates, and when the organization talked about “customers,” everyone was clear on who they were and what they needed. And when the pandemic hit, people rallied. The top priority was keeping the business afloat, so teams leaned into taking care of customers.

However, as time marched on, non-customer-facing teams started to lose their connection to customers. The anecdotal, hallway conversations stopped. They didn’t run into a sales rep in the elevator or sit next to a customer success agent in the cafeteria.

In this environment, even the most well-intended employees can forget that customers are their organization’s lifeblood. Internal teams are more likely to double down on their own metrics and agendas. In the short term, this puts the organization at risk for silos. In the long term, an organization without a clear sight line to customers is at risk of being out-innovated and eventually becoming irrelevant. One need look no further than Sears, Blockbuster or Monster.com to see what happens when an organization loses their tether to customers.

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It doesn’t have to be this way.

When leaders are intentional about bringing customers to life for internal teams it creates an emotional (and practical) connection. It infuses the why of the business into the organizational groundwater. This has been proven to result in greater engagement, which creates bolder innovation, resulting in faster, more lasting growth.

Here are three ways leaders can bring your customers to life for teams who don’t interact with them.

1. Talk about specific customers (instead of the aggregate “customers”).

Ask yourself, which is more engaging: “Customers are counting on us!” or “Ken’s Plumbing Supply is counting on us to fill this order. Without it, he won’t be able to keep his team on schedule.”

Specificity matters. Instead of discussing customers in the aggregate, share details about individual customers to make them more real. Without this, employees will more likely see customers as abstract numbers on a page, rather than real-life human beings.

To build this tangible connection, we recommend leaders have regular conversations with customers, asking customers not just about what they bought, but about how what they bought is impacting their life and/or business.

Then, leaders should share what they’ve learned about specific customers (who they are, what they do, their daily challenges, etc) with all non-customer-facing employees. Telling an IT, or Finance, or HR team how a specific customer improved their life or business as a result of the organization’s offering infuses a purpose-driven ethos into the organization. Stories about specific customers are more memorable and repeatable than a generic value proposition.

2. Ask “How will this impact our customers?” during decision-making.

Even if the decision seems like it has nothing to do with customers, putting a customer-oriented lens on decision-making enables teams to think more holistically and deeply consider the potential impact of their choices.

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We recently worked with a team from a financial services firm charged with improving the cash flow of the organization. The organization had some long-standing process hiccups that were only made worse when the team shifted to working remotely.

The team met and quickly came to a decision: to require vendors to agree to 60-day payment terms in advance of working for the organization. At first blush, the decision seemed sound. Cashflow would improve and customers wouldn’t even know … or would they?

When the team asked, “What impact will this have on customers?” they realized some fatal flaws in the plan. For example: The organization had just partnered with an IT vendor who was supporting them through major internal system changes. A big part of the project was training all the teammates, some of whom are customer-facing, on the updated system.

If it took the vendor 60 days to get paid, the vendor would be required to fund staff while still waiting on payment. As result, the vendor would likely not allocate their best trainers to the project, meaning their teams wouldn’t have top-notch support and training to do their jobs. And an under-supported and undertrained team can’t support customers effectively. The team soon realized that their policy, which at first seemed unrelated to customers, could ultimately end up doing damage to customer relationships.

The ensuing conversation — which was challenging and took a while — resulted in a breakthrough. The team created a system to help vendors get paid over time, as they complete the work. This helped fend off major cashflow spikes, it made sure vendor relationships stood solid, and it enabled the organization to keep delivering for customers.

When non-customer-facing teams assess decisions and projects asking, “How will this impact customers?” it changes the frame. This simple question can be asked of any project or decision. In our experience, when internal teams make a regular practice of asking this question, the resulting priorities and projects are better aligned to improve the organization’s market position.

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3. Include non-customer-facing teammates in customer meetings.

When it comes to bringing customers to life, nothing is more powerful than meeting with a real, live, breathing human. One of our clients, a building supplier, began inviting one backstage team leader to each annual customer business review. When leaders like the head of supply chain, the HR manager, and the safety lead got the opportunity to meet with actual customers, even virtually, it shifted their perspective. They understood in a real and visceral way who the organization serves.

After seeing the impact, which ranged from increasing empathy for customers to actual policy shifts, the senior leaders of the organization went one step further. They made it part of each leadership role (no matter what functional area they led) to attend two or three customer meetings a year. Their only job was to listen.

After joining the customer meetings, the department leaders then briefed their teams on what they learned about the customers’ business goals and needs. This helped everyone see their customers more vividly.  After hearing the head of finance describe her meetings with several customers, one staff accountant said, “These customers used to be just numbers, now I see they’re businesses with their own hopes and dreams.”

In a world where customers have more choices than ever, it’s crucial that leaders help all employees understand who your customers are and how you serve them. Bringing customers to life for backstage teams does not have to be difficult, but it does require effort. Using these three techniques will ensure that everyone in your organization has a direct line of sight to the people who actually drive your business, your customers.

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