Corporate Eye

Leadership in a credit crunch: don’t blink

Colin Shaw is the founder of Beyond Philosophy, a consultancy, training and Customer research organisation recognised as a thought leader in customer experience. Colin is an international bestselling author and widely acclaimed public speaker.

I recently invited him to share his views on how companies should react to the current climate; his views on leadership and action aren’t necessarily what you’d expect …

Tighten your customer experience belt in a credit crunch only if you want to be left in the dust

>I always remember watching a film of a racing driver in the late ’50s. He had just won a race where there was a fatal accident. He was asked: “After seeing the accident, did you slow down?” His reply has always stayed with me. “Whenever there is a bad accident, other racing drivers slow down. I don’t. I see this as my opportunity to win. I accelerate and drive harder than before. As others slow down, I pull ahead of them and win,” he replied.

This, for me, is a similar analogy that can be applied to the credit crunch. Having worked in a corporate environment all my adult life, I am more than aware of what is happening today. The “Powers of Darkness” are gathering and there are pockets of people in an organisation who have never really believed in the benefits of improving a customer’s experience. They think cost cutting and efficiency is the answer to everything. The Powers of Darkness are “inside out.” They will see the credit crunch as their time to strike – The Powers of Darkness are starting to cast their shadow far and wide throughout companies and they need to do something about it.

They talk of the doom and gloom that will befall the company if we do not cut costs. And while professing their support to customer focus, they say now is not the time. Now, they say, is the time to cut costs, become more efficient and to focus on infrastructure. If your business is thinking: “When times are better, we will reconsider improving customer experience.” As the doom and gloom spreads, the clouds thicken and people start to waver. So, maybe you’re right? Shouldn’t we all forget about improving the Customer Experience for a while? This doubt spreads, and the clouds eventually overshadow the fledgling shoots of a customer-focus approach. Ultimately, they wither and die.

Customer Experience is seen as a luxury, not an essential. And sure enough, I recently spoke to one client who was running a Customer Experience initiative and she was told that the project team was to be disbanded. Why? The official reason was that the company had “completed the Customer Experience work” and could now “pass it to the operational teams to build on this work.”

While I would agree that this is the ultimate goal for any organisation, the roots need to be strong and firmly established. In this client’s case, the roots are not strong enough. In my view, the company is doing this at the wrong time and for the wrong reason. This will eventually undo all of the team’s good work, and I guarantee the competition will catch up. I also guarantee that two years from now, my client’s executives will realise their mistake. But such is life. My advice is the opposite: This is the time to invest; the time to accelerate, not slow down, and the time to put some space between you and the competition, as those businesses will be slowing down. This is also the time to identify the Powers of Darkness and banish them from the organisation once and for all. This is the time for leadership to stand up and be counted. This is the time when leaders’ true principles are tested.

I appreciate that during these times, businesses need to save money, but life is full of choices. Let’s be clear: There are always money and resources available. It’s only a case of where they are deployed. The other day, we were presenting to a client on some market research we believe the company should be conducting. As I walked through reception area, I noticed it was being gutted and refurbished. This client did not have any customer research to talk of. The people I was meeting with started to question if such an investment was worthwhile. What was the ROI? A decent question, but my response was, in a friendly way, the ROI on the refurbishment of the reception area? The cost of this refurbishment must have been four times the cost of the research. The point was made.

All businesses need to look at their costs during a credit crunch. It would be silly to suggest otherwise. But, is cutting costs to improve the Customer Experience the right approach? No. Leaders should see this as a time of opportunity, rather than threat. In the wake of 9/11, Southwest Airlines famously allowed its customers to have a refund or change tickets. Other airlines didn’t. The long-term benefit on customer loyalty is obvious. It is easy to keep to your principles, values and beliefs when everything is going right. It is when things go wrong that you are truly tested. That’s when what you do should still reflect those principles and values and beliefs. Be very clear that this is a test of leadership. Actions speak louder than words.

So ask yourself this: What do you want to be remembered for by your people and your customers when the credit crunch is a distant memory? Are you cutting or investing in customer experience? Do you see this as an opportunity or a threat? Are you advancing or retreating? During these challenging times, we will see the leaders’ true colours.

Thanks, Colin!

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