PLM is required to become customer focused is one of the marketing statements, in the same way as PLM and Innovation are connected. Before moving into PLM topics, I want to share some personal experiences related to customer focus. These experiences happened to me almost within a one-day timeframe.
Two weeks ago I landed late in the evening at Schiphol airport. A bus took us from the plane to an arrival gate to go through security. With the other passengers, I arrived in a passage which was planned to be closed during the night as maintenance should take place. Two servicemen were frustrated by the crowd passing by.
One of them said: “How was it possible that passengers still arrive and disturb our work?” ** . The other serviceman said: “The bus driver has gone crazy to drop these passengers here where we are supposed to work?”**
** Free translated from a native Dutch local accent.
As a customer, I realized this is a common problem of large enterprises. Most employees are not connected to their customers anymore. They focus only on their work, and every disruption (even by customers) is an element of irritation. They do not realize it is the customer at the end that pays their salary.
Next I went to the railway station to catch my train to Utrecht. Waiting on the platform, the announcement for my train to arrive did not pop up as expected on the billboard and disappeared from the list. A few minutes after the train should have departed from the station, a speaker announces the train to Utrecht has been cancelled.
Why this happened nobody knows. There were no railway employees around to provide more information. (Perhaps too late – their shift was over?) Half an hour later the next train was supposed to come in. At the scheduled time, a train arrived at the platform, and everyone got into the train.
The train speaker announced that this is NOT THE TRAIN to Utrecht, and he advised all travelers for Utrecht to get out. Many passengers including me went outside looking for a railway employee who could explain what was happening. But there was no one around. At a certain moment, the right train arrived and finally after 1½ hour delay I came home and decided to file a complaint. Mainly because there was no interaction possible with any railway employee to understand why it happened, get rid of my annoyance, and what the alternatives to travel were.
Next surprise: It was not possible to file a complaint directly; you had to go through a virtual assistant named Eva. Probably they use a female name as men are usually more respectful in their conversation towards a woman than to man. Imagine it would have been Joe. Still lack of intelligence can be annoying for everyone as you can see below:
Only when you provide Eva with your personal details and email address, you get a mail back from customer service to which you can respond with your complaint. This is somehow the same principle as a firewall with a reverse proxy. How to shield yourself from customers / virus attacks.
So I sent my mail and got a confirmation mail that I would get a response within 2 working days. And indeed within two days the answer came. They were really sorry, and they have taken so many measures already in the past to avoid this kind of situations it was almost impossible this had happened. Sorry. It was a classical answer, and what was missing any link to the actual event – nobody probably inside the railway company would take an initiative to understand what has happened. Disappointing.
As a customer, I realized this is a common problem of large enterprises. They are not connected to their customers anymore. They are afraid of direct contact and build a solid defense wall around their organization. They do not realize it is the customer at the end that pays their salary.
The next day ….
I had an issue with my telephone system (Murphy´s law). The telephone company, like the railway company, was in the past a state-owned company, meaning they had a monopoly for 50 years and more. They are still struggling to become customer centric as the older staff is still in control.
If you try to interact with them through the regular means, by phone (long waiting times – many times diverted to other departments), or by email (thank you for your email – we will try to respond within two working days), you will have a similar response.
As a customer, I realized this is a common problem of large enterprises. They are not connected to their customers anymore. People try to do their best in their domain, and if it does not fit anymore you are diverted or set aside as there is enough to keep you busy. They do not realize it is the customer at the end that pays their salary.
Enough fun now, I am sure this happens in many other places.
Back to become customer centric
When you look at a small startup company, they are focused on the outside world. To gain market share and market attention they need to focus on their potential customers and learn to engage with them as soon as possible. They have a distinctive or new proposition and the faster they understand the dynamics of their potential market, the better they have the likelihood customers will choose their offering and become successful.
And as the company is small, everyone knows who is doing what. People are multitasking and flexible. Somehow the same characteristics you find in a small mid-market company. Every customer order is celebrated there and known.
When companies become large, people start to become specialized, and they create departments. There is a need for globalization and more people will join the company around the world, combined with a layer of middle management. And more and more the management approach becomes MBR (management by results) as this has become the standard. I wrote about MBR and about MBM (management by means) in a previous post – profit beyond measure.
The disadvantage of the MBR approach is that instead of having a company looking outside to their customers, the organization turns inwards. Instead of “I need to satisfy my customers as at the end they pay my salary” the mind switches towards “I need to satisfy my boss as he/she pays my salary”
Departments optimize themselves to attain efficiency and get the numbers they need to provide. For many departments, here the decision is made that customers are too disruptive or evil as they disrupt the ideal process – customer interaction becomes a threat. It is safer to do nothing and keep responding to what your boss / management wants, instead of acting in a customer centric manner as it disrupts the daily work.
Still all companies want to be customer centric as this is THE WAY to stay in business. If you know what your customers want or even better, if you can give them their unique experiences, you are ahead of the competition. And keep in mind to think glocal (global but act local – customer centric)
How can we bring the customer centric approach to large companies, where most departments work totally isolated from customers for various reasons? In my younger days, when I was connected with software development, I noticed most R&D organizations want to spend all day and their energy on developing new (cool) things, instead of optimizing existing (boring) stuff. Where optimizing existing stuff is what customers want, and new stuff is perhaps what marketing and sales think is needed. I think there is a lot of coolness possible in optimizing boring stuff (look at Apple).
Clayton Christensen wrote in his book “The Innovators Dilemma -When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail” about why leading companies lose their connection with the market. They focus on their large customers and want to satisfy these large ones. The strange situation is here that they are customer centric but only for a few, where the benefit often lies in volumes of customers. Big companies focusing on key customers do not see disruption and innovations coming up, and at a certain moment they can become obsolete. Read his book if you work for a great firm. I wrote about his thoughts in the context of PLM –: The Innovators Dilemma and PLM
Finally, the extreme you find in governmental organizations. With their lack of competition and most of the time tax money coming in, there is no need to be customer centric. Even if an individual wants to be customer centric, the system will not allow this person much room to act different.
However, there is hope, and my hope is based on the Millenials or the so called “generation Y”. I described them in a recent post after reading the book Fast Future: Mixing past and future generations with a PLM sauce
If we go back to my problem with the telephone system and the large phone company, there a change is happening. A year ago I discovered they have a “social” helpdesk. If you send them a direct message through Facebook or Twitter; you receive a response within a few hours. And next they pick up the issue and take the initiative to solve it.
The same is valid for my favorite airline, KLM. As part of the big joint venture with Air France, all official contact through mail became hopeless, but their responses through Facebook are fast and to the point.
What happens behind the scenes in these two companies, and I am sure it happens in more companies, is that new employees (generation Y) become the focal point to the customer and they take away the burden of dealing with a large, rigid organization. Because they understand the company better and are considered as one-of-us inside the company, they have access to the information. They can push and pull information, initiate actions and at the end come back with a customer focused response.
This approach of personal customer interaction brings you in a better mood, although I must say in the case of the activities with the telephone company, issues were not resolved much faster. The old processes internally were still not in sync with each other. Probably because there is not “a single version of the truth”-concept like in most companies. Different systems for different purposes, not integrated cause mistakes, especially when the customer wants an immediate response and resolution.
Maybe an example to explain this approach. When working in a classical PLM system, it is all about the data inside the system with the right status and version. In modern PLM, it could be the most credible information the system could provide based on (search) algorithms. It is the similar to the way Google translate works – this was a translation a year ago:
In Dutch, the text is only about men, but as the combination women and kitchen was more commonly found, Google translated the sentence as above. Sexistic, based on historic associations. If you try the same sentence now, you get:
An accurate translation based on error fixing once. Google does not keep the one-to-one translation of words but presents the sentence with the highest probability. And when corrected it reminds the fix. This is somehow in the same manner as our brain associates information. Ultimately in a few years these engines can become as powerful as an experienced worker.
But what intrigued me more was the fact that these “social employees” somehow became the glue in the organization, connecting people and departments internally. Bringing to the customer a positive experience. Instead of specialists there was a need for generalists who can communicate.
Could this also work in the context of PLM? Instead of trying to tear down the silos, use a team of “social workers” who will interact with customers or the people in the field?
I am not sure. The type of customer interaction I described was mainly related to standard products and services. Not sure if this approach of generalists (data miners) would work in manufacturing companies.
When asking myself this question in the PLM domain, it realized it is somehow describing the work I am doing most of the time. Working with companies implementing PLM, working with PLM vendors and implementers on building plans to solve or resolve issues, without being part of a single project (silo) all the time – a “social worker” – a generalist is becoming an expert in generalizations.
So I am interested to learn, is anyone of the readers of this post aware of the “social approach” in their environment? Do you see companies hire generalists (generation Y) to connect the old world back to their customers?
The downside of the “social worker” is that the internal organization is even more shielded from annoying customers who disturb their plans and daily rhythm. It does not solve the silo problem.
However look at it from the modern data centric (PLM) approach, where storing information is no longer the goal. It is about identifying the right data in the context of an activity where data might come from different sources. Exactly what generation Y is used to do, the data scientist. With their mindset of connecting data instead of owning data, this generation might produce the next evolution of PLM.
Will the future be working towards access to information as likely the single truth, or will we keep on working towards a single version of the truth? If it is going to be disruptive? (Probably yes) If it is in the near future? (Why not) this is still unclear to me.