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.

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  • andy_mcf

    Recently ran into this exact scenario.  The message business leaders need to adopt in this regard is to say "no" more often to customers so that they trust the "yes".  Companies that try to be all things to all customers end up frustrating their employees, customers, and shareholders. 


  • Phil

    Wow... I think my company needs some work in this department. Does this apply to the small sub 20 person teams? We sort of feel like we have to do whatever we can to prove ourselves and make big clients with unrealistic expectations happy so that they keep overloading us with the work that we need to continue growing... So far its seemed to work, but I can definitely see that it won't be sustainable for much longer without burning myself and the rest of our team out. 

  • Lisa Nirell

    I admire your courage for baring your soul on this public forum about this topic. Very few leaders will discuss this in public!

    If you are working for a medium or larger company and leading a small 20 person team, you may find it more difficult to re-direct the ship. It may also be difficult to address this situation if you are a cash-strapped startup with very few clients and an unbaked value proposition.

    If, however, you are the business owner or partner, you have a healthy number of clients, and some positive cash flow, all is not lost.
    Who is the captain of the ship: you, or the client? Are they responsible for defining and executing your growth plan -- or are you? If the latter is true, then look closely at your written growth plan (you have one, don't you?) How clear are your values? Are they used by everyone on your team to make critical choices, or are they just listed on a fancy wall poster? When you add a new team member, do you sit down with them and explain what is meant by "customer centric?" Do you give them the latitude to push back when a client expects something beyond the scope of your written commitment?

    Unless you are looking to grow at all costs, burnout is a valid concern. I recommend 3 things (and please forgive my shameless promotion in advance):

    1. Bring your teams together and define your values and client engagement standards.
    2. Review and revise your growth plan to reflect these standards.
    3. Share the plan with your clients and ask them for feedback.

    I outline an 11 step, easy to understand growth plan in my book, Energize Growth NOW: The Marketing Guide to a Wealthy Company. The tools and examples will help you with these steps.

    Your less than ideal clients (who expect you to do all of the heavy lifting) will become more clear, and your client champions will dive in to help you succeed.

    Let me know how it goes!