Think of yourself as the customer

United Stationers’ Harry Dochelli believes the customer is always right and any company that signs up to that adage will reap the benefits.

Walking the floors of United Stationers, you can see signs everywhere asking you to “think of yourself as the customer”. We are a company that drives a customer-centric culture for our customers. In fact, I begin and end my day thinking about what I can do to help our customers meet their customers’ needs. More importantly, I think about how we can continue to create lasting relationships with our customers so that we are not just a wholesaler, but a committed partner in creating customer-focused cultures.

Why is being customer-focused so important?

The old adage goes that “the customer is always right”. The idea behind this is that if the customer is seen as wrong, and attention isn’t given to that customer’s needs, then the customer will not be a customer for long. Completely focusing on the customer is an extension of that old adage. In fact, being customer-obsessed is twofold: you have to know what your customers want before they do and you have to be there for them when they need you.

The late Steve Jobs took understanding your customer very seriously when thinking about his strategy at Apple. He said: “Get closer to your customer. So close, in fact, that you tell them what they need well before they realise it themselves.” When you home in on your customer’s needs, and when you know your customer better than they know themselves, you become your customers’ trusted advisor for all things workplace.  

Another shining example of customer focus is Zappos. I had the pleasure of seeing Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh speak at the last ISSA/INTERCLEAN conference. He said that customer service shouldn’t be focused on getting the customer off the phone, but rather it should be focused on increasing the happiness of others, both customers and associates. Zappos considers itself a customer service company that happens to sell shoes and clothing, instead of a shoe company that happens to have customer service. By looking at its own services and offerings through the eyes of the customer, Zappos is able to exceed expectations and create happier customers. When customers are happy and engaged, associates are, too, creating a culture of happiness.

What are the signs of a customer-focused company?

When companies become customer-focused, customers start looking at those companies as solutions providers, not just product or service providers. The customer relationship becomes more than just a transaction; it becomes a partnership. Products and services may change throughout the years, but a strong relationship transcends time.

Companies can also exhibit tactical cues to signal a customer-focused culture, outside of building a partnership. For instance, a customer-centric company empowers frontline associates to solve problems. When a customer calls the focused company’s customer service, the person on the other end immediately helps that customer, assuming that the customer is always right. A customer-focused company is also quick to solve problems because the company concentrates on finding a solution, rather than being preoccupied with whether or not the problem should be solved in the first place. When you are truly focused on your customer, whether you are predicting future needs, or being a trusted advisor, the behaviours of your associates and the culture you promote emanate that focus.   

How can you become customer-focused?

Becoming customer-obsessed starts with understanding your customers. It is true that there are a number of ways for you to focus on your customers, from segmentation to customer profiles. There are a number of programmes, systems and software companies that can help you do this, but before you consider these things, you must ensure that you have a clear and in-depth understanding of your customer. What characteristics do your customers exhibit that enable you to have a partnership or a close relationship with them? What are the similarities that your most engaged customers share? What differentiates them from your less-engaged customers? Knowing these answers and more will enable you to strengthen your relationship with your customer and truly become customer-obsessed.

You should always think about your customers and what they need from their perspective. Make sure you begin and end your day asking yourself, “If I were the customer…?” As you go through this process, I guarantee that you’ll learn a lot. With tenacity and focus, you’ll see your company evolve into one that inspires loyalty and has the foresight to determine what your customers want, well before they know it themselves. Your success and your customers’ success is in your hands – you have the power to be the solution to your customers’ problems, both today and tomorrow.

Harry Dochelli is SVP of the Independent Dealer Channel at United Stationers. Prior to his current role with United, Harry held roles with Lawson Products, OfficeMax and Boise Office Solutions.


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