Two Kinds of Companies

It’s happening, and it’s happening right now. At this very moment.

It’s happening in board rooms, in grocery stores, online and a million other places: Companies are either getting better at making customers happy, or they’re getting worse. None stay the same.

Somewhere, there’s a VP of finance who convinces her CEO to reduce staff in the customer service center to hit the annual budget. Both execs are aware that doing so is good for their stock options, at least in the short term.

Somewhere else, there’s a CEO who recognizes just how critical his customer service department is. He knows that, in many cases, that department provides the only human point of contact between the company and its customers. So he hires carefully, trains thoroughly, rewards properly and defines jobs intelligently.

Somewhere, an employee team has just learned that its request to host an innovation event has been denied. The vice president of marketing doesn’t see the point. Sales are up, so our products must be fine, he thinks. Hell, our customers are lucky to have us! And besides, all that innovation stuff is so much hooey.

Somewhere else, there’s a company with systems to collect employee ideas on an ongoing basis. All ideas are reviewed, many are implemented, and employees are rewarded for their thinking. In addition, the company hosts quarterly ideation events which are open to all employees, not just the C-suite or the marketing department. Underpinning all of these efforts is the same core question: “How do we create a happier customer?”

Somewhere, there’s a company that looks at strategic planning as a painful, dismal two-week process. Typically, it simply adds 5% to last year’s numbers and modifies one strategy, mostly for posterity. This new strategic plan is then placed in a binder that no one will ever read.

Somewhere else, there’s a company views strategic planning as an opportunity to think boldly about the question: How can we create difference and meaning for those we serve? Strategic planning is an ongoing process, not a once-a-year event. And execution and measurement are paramount.

Somewhere, there’s a marketing director who has learned to listen. She’s developed methods to constantly monitor the voice and behavior of her customers. And – wonder of wonders – she’s even developed a strong relationship with the sales team; communication and ideas flow easily between them.

Somewhere else, there’s a marketing director who has way too much on his plate to listen to his customers or his colleagues. This month, he’s trying to build and launch a new corporate website, with little input from anyone else. He trusts his “gut.”

Somewhere, there’s a company that knows what it stands for. Its values permeate all corners of its operations.

Somewhere else, there’s a company that will happily ignore whatever values it thinks it has, if it means making the sale.

Somewhere, there’s a company that doesn’t know what positioning is. It tries to attach its brand to vague notions of “quality,” “value” and “leadership.”

Somewhere else, there’s a company that lives and breathes positioning. Every brand in its portfolio has a clear definition of how it will serve – how it will, in some way, make the world a better place.

I’m convinced there are exactly two kinds of organizations: Those that truly exist to serve their customers, and those that do not.

What kind is yours?

A version of this post appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier on April 4, 2008, in the column “That Branding Thing.”

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2008 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.