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Call it "Soft" - We Call It Strategic

by Lisa J. Marshall and Lucy Freedman

Where does success in business come from today? Technological advantage might give you an edge - temporarily. Anything you can do someone else can reverse engineer and redo (probably better) within months, if not weeks. Being first to market carries only a brief advantage. Price helps, but no longer guarantees secure market position. Even at low cost, customers expect service and will go where they can get it. Both inside the organization and with customers, the only real strategy that weathers adversity and takes advantage of opportunity - is a relationship or people strategy.

A people strategy seems softer than the traditional view of business strategy. In fact, customer strategy. But customer loyalty is the strongest factor in business success. And the way to get it is in the many consistent interactions that take place every day, not in high-profile PR campaigns.

What happens when companies fail to notice and take advantage of those relationships ? The account manager doesn't hear that the customer's mail room folks went out of their way to handle distribution of the last big order, just because they like the freight guy. This manager doesn't know that the customer's accounting people now love the service desk folks, because they helped straighten out a billing error. Error begun in sale Or that the customer's department manager, who wouldn't speak to the sales rep, is now asking for advice on ordering new equipment. If this account manager did know, he could find out what kinds of questions are being asked and hot buttons being pushed, and begin to earn more business by anticipating needs.

What prevents him from knowing these critical strategic details? A work culture that can't take the time to celebrate little victories, or give people strokes for turning adversarial relationships into positive ones.
A culture focused on numbers, with little investment in employee learning, or building a healthy organizational culture.

So he doesn't make an offer to expand help desk services and this part of the business doesn't get developed. He doesn't suggest the new mail room services that improve processes and reduce work loads to a customer who is ripe for such improvements. He doesn't find out what's happening to the customer's customers, so that next time, his people can offer advice not only on equipment, but on expanding the customer's services offerings as well. He doesn't coach his people on their role in growing the business, or give credit when they contribute to this growth. Opportunities are lost and business that could have grown, withers.

And as a result, people in the organization, weary of hearing only about what's not working and how dissatisfied the customer is, either assume there is nothing they can do to improve the situation and give up, or go look for work where there's occasionally some good news. We lose business as well as our best employees by ignoring relationship-building strategies of reward and recognition.

Is this happening in your organization? Is a failure to capture the data that tells you the current status of your customer relationships costing you dollars, employees, and opportunities daily? If so, here are three simple moves you can make:
• Build success reporting into your systems. Ask people to report successes before they
report issues. It'll change the attitude of the entire team, allowing people to be much more resourceful when they get to the hard issues.
• Compile success stories and review them monthly. What are the patterns? What do
they say about your organization's strengths and weaknesses? Where are new strategic opportunities emerging? What new offers should you consider making to your customer?
• Share success stories system-wide. Cross-fertilize your organization with knowledge
about what makes the customer happy. Seed it with ideas about how to build stronger relationships and provide better service.!

Strong, trusting relationships among employees and with clients are built out of thousands of interaction moments, person by person, situation by situation. When we think we don't have time for good news, or that it's "soft" to pay attention to how our customer relationships are improving, we deprive ourselves of critical knowledge. This knowledge allows us to be strategic about a significant source of business advantage.

Is focusing on technology and short-term results taking attention away from building relationships and creativity in your organization? While it may take courage to swim against the tide, a few simple moves can make a big difference in attitudes and profitability. What successes can you find to recognize today?
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