Global Leadership Dialogue: Connecting with Customers

Problem finding is more persuasive than problem solving. Finding hidden
problems now matters much more than trying to solve existing ones – Dan Pink, Author, To Sell is Human

The dynamics of interacting with customers has shifted considerably in 2020 and the current pandemic has highlighted the fragile nature of one’s ability to reach out to potential customers. This article’s commentary below is distilled from insights expressed during a recent dialogue with global leaders. Findings centre upon the effects upon leadership and the structure of the company. Each company represented in the dialogue has had to adapt and embrace new technologies quickly over the past 8 months to continue to operate both with their own staff and their customers; for some sectors this has proven more problematic than others. For example, in traditional industries, such as construction & building materials, personal and face to face contact is of paramount importance to sign off deals and in the choice of commercial partners and suppliers.

Home is where the second office is
Questions are starting to surface as to how sustainable virtual working really is. Many in this group of senior executives query the viability of home and virtual working for longer than 9 months. What was once an urgent operational requirement to get people performing from their home environment has turned into business as usual. What is interesting here is not the pressure upon executives and employees but on the very DNA of the company. As we look at the set-up of the traditional organisation, with the hierarchical business structures and siloed functions, we see that decision-making has been problematic since the pandemic hit. Upheaval to our normal lives has been coupled with the facilitation of virtual working at break-neck speed; it’s unsurprising that executives at the top have more time to interact with others and those in lower and mid-level roles have been bombarded with projects, endless video calls (to keep f2f contact alive) and many of these factors have distorted and blurred our home and working lives. There is an irony here that the technologies that are designed to allow us to collaborate further online have been used to replace social contact, so we all now live in a virtual environment with a virtual background in a timeless online space somewhere stuck between the office and our home.

But what about interacting with others?
A senior leader working on a large acquisition of another company notes the accelerated change within the deal and the speed that we have all adapted to new ways of interacting. But the same question still haunts us…when will we meet for real? One example of ‘Connecting with Customers’ is of course Amazon. But is fulfilment the same as connection? Its an interesting point as we enter another period of lockdown across some parts of the world. It certainly takes longer to build trust and to fulfil projects at this time, but Amazon have quickly expanded operations and met the demand of populations looking for home office equipment, food and groceries delivered and all with wicked speed. Another area of concern is the connection between business change and business innovation. Do we buy or build? How do we attract people in and client prospects long term – in the current conditions?

When we look at decision making – even if the leadership team are bought in and decisive in their approach then will the next level down, understand, align and move on the marching orders? There is a disconnect between what the leaders think, believe and say, and how that is interpreted and understood further down the organisation, especially with those in customer facing roles. With pressure on retaining existing customers, will decisions be made as per the leaders’ request or will local interpretation lead to a different action and outcome? There is a vertical communications requirement, and this is a leadership issue. And leadership issues are difficult to rectify online. Face to face contact makes up for a lot of inefficiencies and it is a fall-back mechanism on your existing process that may not be good enough. Many deals have been traditionally made through face-to-face contact, but of course this is not possible in the current environment, and thus requires a professionalisation of key processes especially when digitalisation is added into the change mix.

Education provides confidence
Leaders that have acknowledged the need to learn new skills in 2020 are positioning themselves for future success – this requires a mindset shift from senior leaders to accept that they need to both unlearn and learn, especially through experimentation. Some senior leaders have also looked to junior staff for innovative ideas to give their company the edge; to come up with new products or to shift their thinking on their existing products and services. Leadership teams are learning that using younger employees can be particularly helpful for the company to become more competent in educating their customers on how their products are evolving and educating senior leaders on how technology is changing customer experience and creating new markets. The question is now “Why are we using traditional methods – how can we digitalise to offer improved customer service and experience”.

To fail to prepare is still a failure
The virtual world is forcing people to be much more structured, but this is a big leap for sales, and therefore virtual has made the sales process even more personal. On the one hand outreach to decision makers is easier as their availability is greater; but salespeople have made the mistake of failing to prepare and to understand the buying needs fully. The user experience comes in here. Everyone is looking to further replace traditional methods with a digital technology or a part digital enabled system. But – Do you understand what the buyers are looking for?

And for this change to work, solutions should be:

a) Tech enabled c) Smart b) Frictionless and easy d) Personalised

To enable this change, many companies will look to others for an off the shelf technology rather than piecing together smaller parts themselves – and this is dangerous due to the normal tech procurement traps. Most companies who buy an off-the-shelf technology will be paying over the odds for something that does not necessarily fit the requirements of the original demand. Especially when we look at ecommerce systems which are seen as a panacea to reaching more customers and to keeping them happy. The question is now “How do we align senior leaders and IT on what is really needed to win and retain customers”.

The internal customer
Another area that has been recently highlighted in business is the mis-connect between the technologist’s and the executive leader on what they want new technologies to deliver. Now both technologists and business operations are involved in the same decisions, tech and operations are colliding. On balance experts are needed to help their internal customer to pick the right solution. The correct question for both to ask is “What do you need to meet our customer’s needs?” and “How do we make the process simpler?”

Automatic growth
Speed of tech development and the application of new tech has rocketed over the past 8 months – and the potential of AI and eCommerce etc. is enormous. (Gartner predict that investment in AI will double to $100 billion over the next five years.) AI solutions will provide extra services in industries such as banking with solutions providing the ability to interact with customers in brand new ways. For example, AI will move money that is not performing into a different account to provide you with greater interest automatically. Fintech is already very advanced and is constantly learning new methods to simplify and grow accounts. To conclude, the customer is still the most important person who is not in the room. But the challenge is sorting out the working practices internally to facilitate the connections with customers. Then partnerships and true alignment can be achieved.

This article is based upon the dialogue on 29/10/2020 between senior leaders from across the globe interacting with Rialto Consulting, LURN Pte Ltd, X-PM Transition Partners and Events Creator Ltd.

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Lesz Sikorski

  • People Strategist, coach and advisor with 30 years global MNC experience in leading change and organisation development
  • Certificated professional coach
  • Lived on 2 continents, worked on 6 and visited over 45 countries
  • Previous roles have included HR Director APAC, Group Head of Organisational Development, Project Director – Change & Development and Global Programme Manager, Operational Improvement