I recently found myself in a gift shop on a Caribbean island while taking a cruise, looking to rent snorkel equipment. Upon inquiring about what they offer and their prices, I was greeted with a short, mumbled response and no eye contact. I thought to myself, these people are so lucky their business doesn’t depend on good customer service. I eventually got my equipment and enjoyed a day of snorkeling, but getting there was frustrating. Poor customer service can be very frustrating as a consumer, especially after a big purchase like a laptop, article of clothing, or vehicle.  As I’ve thought more about this encounter, I’ve thought about customer service departments of clients I’ve worked with and just how important they are to sustaining a quality business. I recently read a Harvard Business Review article that took a fresh and unique perspective on customer service.

Customer Service: 2 Perspectives

Ranjay Gulati proposed that customer service can be divided into two perspectives, inside-out and outside-in. With an inside-out perspective, companies become attached to what they sell and to their own organizations. With an outside-in perspective, they start at the marketplace and delve deeply into the problems and questions customers are facing in their lives. They then look for creative ways to adapt and align their own capabilities with those of their suppliers and partners to address some of those problems. The goal is to bring value to customers in ways that are beneficial for them while also creating additional value for the company itself.

Outside-In, Empathetic Customer Service

Gaining this kind of insight into customers’ lives isn’t always easy. You may have to go beyond typical market research and either observe customers in action, or ask profound, open-ended questions to not only understand how they interact with your product, but also to understand the broader constraints they are facing in their lives. A great example of this is bagged salad. A company called Fresh Express realized that busy customers want the entire salad ready to go as they met with and observed customers. Without the understanding that customers didn’t want to go home and put a salad together, it would have been extremely difficult for Fresh Express to understand the need for a salad that was already made.

A common culprit to gaining this perspective is a gap between awareness and action, and this problem has to do with internal silos. Most companies today are still built around product and geography, and do not have a clear line of sight to the customer. These create blind spots and impede coordinated action towards addressing what may be identified as central for their customers. You don’t always have to destroy silos, rather bridging them can bring about the desired results.

The Utah companies I’ve worked with have been good listeners, seeking to understand customer pain points, but struggle with turning those into solutions. Many feel like simply understanding the pain points and being sympathetic while engaging with customers is sufficient. However, you have to commit to owning customers’ problems and work creatively to solve them—often adopting or developing resources you don’t currently have.

When it comes to large shifts in strategy and potential impact to the bottom line, consider chatting with one of our CFO’s. We’re happy to help.