When you hear leaders discussing the challenges of anticipating customers' needs, you likely assume those leaders will be tapping the expertise of their sales and marketing talent for answers. But leaders of high-performance firms have discovered that in-depth knowledge of customers and their needs can and must exist throughout the workforce, and human resources plays a key role in developing that knowledge company-wide.
The 2014 Customer-focused Workforce study from i4cp found several ways that HR hones customer-focused talent. Specifically, there are five HR practices that have the highest correlations to market performance.
To build customer focus, high-performance organizations:
Pret a Manger, a UK-based fast-service sandwich shop with more than 300 locations worldwide, is famous for its customer service, utilizing the short window of opportunity it has to make an impression and keep customers coming back. CEO Clive Schlee refers to it as the Pret Buzz. To achieve this, the company carefully evaluates potential employees, matching their personal traits to its sought-after behaviors. Applicants first complete a 30-day trial, and other shop employees have a say in the hiring decisions.
1) Hire customer-oriented employees
The groundbreaking i4cp study, Global Leadership Development: Preparing Leaders for a Globalized Market, found that consulting with in-country resources to determine region-specific needs is a highly effective way to understand cultural differences in the market and better serve customers.
2) Leverage workforce diversity to better understand customer needs
One example of a firm that retooled its corporate university to address specific customer focus skills is Colliers International, featured as a Strategy in Action in the 2014 Customer-focused Workforce study. The global real estate firm is staying ahead of an industry shift and has reworked its Colliers University to develop new customer-focused skills in employees and help them shift from a traditional brokerage firm mindset to that of an advisor and professional service consultant.
3) Provide customer-oriented employee training
Global agriculture/industrial supplier Cargill, based in Minneapolis, builds customer understanding into its global leadership development program. The company's Capstone program is a one-week deep-dive with a carefully selected key customer, typically from a developing country. The program gives Cargill leaders an opportunity to work on a customer's business issue and deliver a solution-driven result, while gaining additional insight into the customer as well. "We have found that it [Capstone program] can significantly accelerate the development of our relationship with our customer partner by using leadership development as a catalyst to sharing and mutual learning," said Ian Stephenson, vice president, organizational effectiveness in a 2014 i4cp interview.
4) Base personal development plans in part on customer insights/feedback
A growing trend among a few of the world’s largest retailers is to make "merchandising" a job requirement for anyone who aspires to ascend to senior-leadership. A primary reason for this is that merchandising is directly connected to consumers and provides experience and insight into two essential ingredients for retail success: product and pricing. HR develops customer-focus insight within its recruitment, diversity, development, and performance strategies, holding a critical talent management role in producing high-caliber employees who understand the link between customer focus and organizational performance.
5) Make customer focus a criterion for advancement
The complete 2014 Customer-focused Workforce study will be available exclusively to i4cp member organizations.