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Leadership

Why Customer-Driven Culture Will Stall Your Company's Growth

When your biggest customer calls with an emergency request, do you dial 911? Chances are you are setting off unintended fire alarms—and causing your profits to lose altitude.

I met Shane, a dubiously anointed "star salesperson," on a client assignment in San Diego. He piloted the biggest customers. When I worked with the general manager of this $40M software division—his boss—I noticed how Shane could turn the entire support and customer service organization into a tailspin with one email. I cringed when I witnessed how his knee-jerk reactions drove adrenaline levels to an all-time high. Things became so heated that the CEO ultimately reassigned him to another division. In fact, he committed an even greater sin: he promoted him to VP of Sales.

Over the years, Shane’s general manager was equally to blame. He fostered a customer-driven culture. And, as a B2B business leader, you may be unconsciously acting the same way. This behavior is guaranteed to stall your growth and burn out your best people.

First, let’s draw a distinct line between customer-focused and customer-driven cultures.  Think of customer-driven companies as those firms who will go the extra mile for every customer, no matter how large or small. They allocate their best resources to every account. And the founders probably invest at least half of their time with customers. 

Conversely, customer-centric companies put customer needs (latent and overt) front and center when making important growth decisions—not all decisions. They treat clients in accordance with their values. But they are unwilling to sacrifice their relationships and principles to make one more sale.

Contrary to common wisdom, every B2B firm is not in the customer-service business. My auto mechanic is. And guess what? If they mess up my new Audi SUV, I will complain and find another one.

Here are common traits of client-driven cultures. If more than three ring true for you, it may be time to re-visit your true purpose and ways of operating:

  • Your clients comprise most of your social circle.
  • At least 20% of your revenue is derived from one large client. 
  • You deploy an arbitrary resource allocation process.
  • Your delivery resources are at the beck and call of the sales team. This encourages artificial "rush" jobs accepted and done at the expense of development.
  • Principals are deeply involved in delivering service and making sales calls. Every project is unique because clients demand changes, solutions, and change orders—at no extra charge.
  • You encourage personal boundary erosion. After-hours calls and pages are worn like a badge of honor. Your team cannot enjoy a meal without their smart phones beside them to harass their dining companions. If your sales, marketing, and support people are encouraging your clients to call them on a 24/7 basis, and they sleep with their smartphones on their bedstands, then you are a client-driven culture—not to mention dysfunctional. Would you want to be married to that person?
  • Suit vs. creative mentality. According to David Baker, founder of Recourses and author of Managing Right the First Time, ""Suit" is shorthand for account executives. In a business that's focused too much on saying "yes" to clients, suits often make promises that the creative types or technicians have to fulfill. This will kill profits and morale in a heartbeat.

Imagine if my local airport, Washington National, were run this way. Any self-appointed "important person" would fight to control his own runway. The gates would admit passengers on a first come, first served basis. Air traffic control would be rendered useless. The inmates would be running the asylum.

The Shanes of your company cannot be trusted roaming the airport terminal without adult supervision. Nor are your teams if you have given them carte blanche to rule the airways with customer-driven behaviors. Act now before the controllers (your customers) go on strike.

Lisa Nirell helps companies grow customer mind share and market share. Since 1983, Lisa has worked with Zappos, BMC Software, Adobe, Microsoft, and hundreds of entrepreneurs in nine countries. Lisa is also an award-winning expert speaker, FastCompany expert blogger, and author of the acclaimed "EnergizeGrowth® NOW: The Marketing Guide to a Wealthy Company." Download your sample chapter and business energy booster survey at www.energizegrowth.com.

[Image: Flickr user Ed Yourdon]

Copyright 2011, Lisa Nirell. All rights reserved.