Want to understand your customer? Try talking to them!

Published on 10th May 2016
Supply Chain

We’ve all heard the old mantra ‘the customer is king’ but how many businesses reflect this within their values, structure and company culture?

In today’s ever competitive business environment, where business pressures are increasingly resulting in process and practice changes within your customer base, can you really afford to continue blindly doing business in the same old way?

If as a business we don’t move with our markets then sadly, we are likely to be left behind which is neither good for our business, or our employees – just ask those poor people at BHS or Austin Reed.

Both of these organisations, long-standing, well established with strong brand names failed to grasp changes in customer requirements, continued to offer ‘what they offered’ and as a result became failed businesses.

If that fate can befall high profile brands such as those two (and they are not alone, remember Betamax, Kodak, Blockbuster and Blackberry?), do we seriously believe we can stand still within the market place and expect to prosper?

The Construction industry in general and the roofing sector within it is going through a more buoyant phase than perhaps in recent times – but with that comes a series of issues and challenges that require cooperation, innovation and a willingness to look at things from a different perspective than previously: skills shortages, increasing legislation, modern methods of construction will all change the daily working practices we have all become used to and assume are the ‘norm’.

We are aware that many of our clients are grappling with these issues and developing their own strategies to overcome them. As a supplier to these businesses, we can either choose to be part of the solution or stay as part of the problem. The plight of BHS and Austin Reed gives us a clear pointer as to where we all need to be.

So how should we deal with the issue of change? From the perspective of my own Company, the Avonside Group, we feel it is important to actively engage with our customers not just on a day to day transactional basis, but to talk to them about their long term strategies and how we can play our part.

In order to do so in a meaningful way we have to be open and prepared to change. This could apply to our ongoing operational practice or in terms of our long-term strategies.

We are investing significantly in our IT structure to assist in planning and programming, we now have our own CRM system which encourages better communication with our customers and we are about to introduce automatic client surveys to assess whether we are delivering our services in line with their expectations. These are just some of the ways in which we have reacted in order to stay in tune with our market.

On the back of this we will use the responses we receive to analyse how we can change or react to issues and problems on an ongoing basis. Ultimately this will depend upon how good we are at communicating (both talking and listening) with our customers, and by discussing issues in an open-minded way to find solutions that can be acceptable to both parties.

This could result in changes to trading arrangements, the way we price to customers, different job roles within our business to better reflect customer needs, and it will almost certainly require us to develop our people so we are ready and able to meet the challenges that arise.

As a Group, Avonside operates in a number of different sectors, each with its own set of issues and challenges. We in turn need to respond proactively to those needs. Whilst each will be slightly different in nature the one thing that is consistent is our desire to give outstanding customer performance. This in turn is underpinned by our core values which foster the ambition to strive towards excellence in all we do.

As I mentioned, communication is a key thread of any strategy to improve service standards, but the real difference is how a business reacts and responds to the feedback it then receives. Whilst there are many areas a business needs to address as part of improving its offer, we have found the following pointers will allow you to provide better service levels on a consistent basis:

  • Always focus on service levels before anything else
  • Give the customer the best experience you possibly can
  • Be ready to change what you do, be flexible
  • Always be listening to your customers
  • Explain what and why you do things – don’t expect them to just know
  • Know your customer
  • Each organisation must determine how it stays close to its market place and offer the best service to its clients that it possibly can. But as the fate of BHS and Austin Reed demonstrates, a failure to embrace change in the face of customer requirements, in either the short or long term, is a road that leads nowhere.

– Tony Burke