In the early 1990s, a senior executive with a large West Coast retail bank described her organization’s customer service as “the cream of the crap.” In her opinion, it really wasn’t very good, but it was better than their competitors.

When the bank did customer surveys, a common gripe was its account opening process. It seemed customers were constantly having to redo paperwork (remember, this was the early ‘90s) because of mistakes by the bank. And this was commonplace across all financial institutions in the market. In response, the bank launched an internal campaign — DIRFT, “do it right the first time.” And it worked. At least well enough for the bank to become the “cream” and rise above its competition.

But this was retail banking — B2C. Retail, regardless of industry, has always been more conscious of customer service and its importance to a long-term relationship than B2B firms. Now B2C companies that don’t create an engaging, near-frictionless customer journey at every touch point and generate a 360-degree view of the customer are likely to find themselves feeding on scraps in a cutthroat market. The idea is to “surprise and delight” your customers.

What about B2B businesses? For a variety of reasons, you don’t hear too much about customer delight in the B2B realm. B2B relationships tend to be more complex than B2C, with many more players on both sides and a lot more at stake. Moreover, businesses tend to have multiple partners whose tasks are often interdependent. Think supply chains. Not so in the B2C world. If you buy dog food from Chewy and a computer from Best Buy, they are discrete, unrelated transactions. The failure of one doesn’t affect the other.

So, many B2B businesses haven’t gotten past customer satisfaction. Customer satisfaction (C-SAT) is simply the process of achieving goals and consistently delivering the value you promised. Of course, that’s important, but it’s a far cry from delight. Customer delight, on the other hand, proves to the customer that you intimately understand their needs and can proactively anticipate ways to improve their situation. Or, in simpler terms, satisfaction is practical; delight is emotional.

Delight is About More than the End Result

Certainly, end results matter, but what did the customer experience on the way to those end results? You may deliver a project on time and on budget, but if you dragged the customer through six months of pain to get there, you won’t have a “delighted” customer.

Nevertheless, just as in retail, there’s an opportunity to delight your B2B customer at every touchpoint — from the first time you contact a prospect and at every stage in the marketing-sales funnel to each step in scoping, planning, and executing a project. The opportunities may be less obvious, but they’re there.

For us, the question is always, “What kind of experience are we providing the customer?” And in creating that experience are we willing to go above and beyond the terms of our contract to deliver the best value?

Doing the Right Thing

Going beyond the contractual terms of an agreement to deliver value does not mean acceding to every request. As a service provider, we’re not in a relationship to comply. Sometimes, delivering the most value means telling a client what they don’t want to hear — advice that may be painful in the short term but will bear fruit in the future.

Our objective is to make the customer successful without catering to any individual’s agenda because, not surprisingly, such agendas may not align with the company’s goals. It’s also important to recognize that the “real” customer is not always obvious since there are many players or stakeholders involved. This is an area in which the concept of customer delight differs significantly in B2B versus B2C. Our relationship with a client is a “many-to-many” scenario in which our goal is to operate at an entity level. We want to do the right thing for the entity, regardless of politics or personal ambitions. This is how we define a customer-centric approach.

Building a Customer-Centric Culture

One lesson about delighting customers and customer centricity that can be taken from the B2C world is its relationship to company culture. Disney is a prime and famous example. The culture of a company is its foundation, the guiding principles that inform every interaction with a customer. It’s not a set of rules but a set of values like trust, honesty, accepting responsibility, treating people nicely with integrity, a problem solving mindset.

You cannot tell everyone in an organization how to behave in every situation. But you can build a culture of values that empowers them to act independently with the best interest of customers always in mind. To borrow a popular cliché: it becomes part of a company’s DNA.

It’s not easy to build a customer-centric culture, and it must be driven from the top. It starts with the CEO and every time she or he speaks, those cultural values must be emphasized — in meetings large and small. They have to trickle down from one level to the next. And they have to be matched by the company’s policies and actions. If you want a thriving, customer-centric culture, you must treat employees with the same regard you have for customers.

Pursuing Customer Delight in the Midst of a Pandemic

When the pandemic hit, we knew it would be a test of our culture, of our willingness to set an example and uphold our values. We had two priorities. One, take care of our customers because they were depending on us to keep their businesses running smoothly. Two, assure our employees we would take care of them, that we would keep them safe and they would not lose their jobs. And we communicated this to our customers as well, so they knew we were taking care of our employees.

We immediately implemented remote working and made sure that everyone had what they needed to do that successfully. As we made this transition, we communicated constantly with our customers. Of course, our customers were experiencing the same thing. Much of the work that pre-COVID was done onsite could easily be handled remotely, so we began the process of redefining how work would be done.

Constant communication supported this flexibility and really strengthened our partnership with customers. Our customers were very complimentary about our work and we made sure our employees received that recognition. This is also an important value of a customer-centric culture: recognize the work and accomplishments of your employees. Not just senior managers. Everyone.

The Realities of COVID Accelerate Digital Transformation

I agree. Even pre-pandemic, I think digital transformation was happening at a rapid pace. Across the board, the pandemic has had a profound impact on the way we work and live. Over the last few decades, forward-thinking employers focused a lot of attention on work-life balance. But the pandemic has triggered a paradigm shift, supported by technology that makes it possible for us to work from anywhere at any time, safely and securely. Things will never return to the way they were before the pandemic. A new operating model will emerge that values work-life integration for a distributed workforce.

Part of digital transformation will be creating processes, tools, and endpoint security management protocols to support that workforce. That’s the most flexible workforce, which allows companies to optimize their cost structures — doing more with the same operating budget. And we are helping our customers make that journey.

Of course, this new paradigm will change customer expectations. Exactly how, no one really knows. We are learning together. No one has been through this before. But the value of a true partnership versus a transactional relationship — no matter how reliable — will be enormous. More than ever, our customers are looking for flexible, trusted advisors, and right-sized partners who can help them adjust to rapidly changing priorities, regardless of contractual guidelines.

This fits perfectly with our values. And our goal to always delight our customers.

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