Once upon a time, pinning down who was responsible for the relationship between company and customer was much easier, says Steven van Belleghem.

There was some nicely polished advertising from the marketing team to put across key messages and a few hand-picked employees who would be the front-line visible face of the business for human interaction. Since the rise of digital technology, however, achieving genuine customer focus has become a challenge that requires the right attitude to be engrained into an entire organisation.

In today’s digital world, everyone is visible. Consumers get an insight into what goes on behind the scenes via social media. HR teams shape public perceptions by how they recruit the right kind of customer-focused employees. IT departments have a more crucial role than ever on how smoothly the company runs. In fact, directly or indirectly, every department has its own impact on the customer relationship, and without everyone being on board, a company will never achieve an extreme customer focus.

Forget the “internal customer”

We have all witnessed the tensions that exist between departments, particularly between front and back office. To get employees working together towards customer-focus I have often heard many bosses push the “internal customer” concept, based on the idea that colleagues should get the same service as an end customer. The idea is well-intended, but it often falls down because serving an internal customer simply does not deliver the same satisfaction as getting feedback from the end customer.

A possible solution to this is taking the step to actually link back office people with the end customer, and allowing them to feel the impact of genuine praise or criticism for themselves. This way, back office workers gain greater appreciation for the market and feel the greater reward of working to make a “real” customer happy. Digital technology has made facilitating this possible. Installing screens with social media feedback or sharing e-mails conveying complaints and compliments will encourage every employee to consider how their work impacts the end customer.

Extreme customer focus is not about having the back office work better for the front office. Extreme customer focus is about abolishing the very idea of the back office. In an extremely customer-focused company, the back office concept doesn´t exist. Everyone is part of the front office.

Front office needs greater autonomy

American restaurants have built a reputation for customer service, and this point is partly why. If a waiter brings a drink too late, he himself has the autonomy to offer it on the house. If he sees that someone didn´t find the meal delicious, he can himself decide not to charge the customer. In European restaurants, waiters generally have to ask for the owner’s OK for things like that. This works in America because waiters are dependent on the tips from the customers so all processes are conceived as a function of customer satisfaction. Without employees having autonomy, the process is much more difficult and slow, which immediate creates a level of frustration and resentment for the customer. Autonomy of the front office employees is a blessing for both the customer and the employee.

There is a rapidly-growing energy company in Belgium called Eneco that is building a reputation for customer-centricty by encouraging autonomy for its front office employees. Eneco launched what they call their “flower power” program to empower their call centre employees to decide on their own initiative to send people small tokens of appreciation, such as a handwritten card or a beautiful bouquet of flowers. These gifts aren’t just to help calm the waters in tense situations, but can also be sent out to an enthusiastic customer, someone who is going through a personal drama or anyone else – the employee decides for himself, and that gives him (and the happy recipient, of course) great satisfaction.

Autonomy works best when one single rule is in place: “Always decide to the customer´s benefit. No discussion.” Managers and entrepreneurs who give their employees such a form of trust will get it back in spades, making both employees and customers feel respected and valued.

Behaviour follows reward

If a company has any desire to achieve “extreme customer focus,” it much consider its bonus and evaluation system. With a purely sales and financially-driven bonus system, the degree of customer focus is always going to be in question.

One relatively small insurer in the Netherlands called ZLM has made itself the exception in the insurance world by evaluating employees only on customer satisfaction rather than any financial parameters. As a result, ZLM now has unquestionably the most satisfied customers in the insurance sector, they now have the biggest share of their market, they are growing at an average rate of 8% per year, and they are the most profitable company in the sector in the Netherlands. It is an interesting paradox that a company without financial targets has the strongest growth and the greatest profitability in the sector.

Management teams who scratch their heads wondering why their company fails to make the transition to extreme customer focus should think about this forgotten barrier: the evaluation and bonus system. Behaviour follows reward – the most profitable companies don´t strive for profit, but for excellent performance.

Prof. Steven Van Belleghem is author of When Digital Becomes Human, published by Kogan Page, priced £19.99. Follow him on twitter @StevenVBe, subscribe to his videos at  or visit

Steven Van Belleghem

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