At Aramis Group, which we launched in 2001 with a phone and a laptop, we vividly remember our first customer even today. That’s because every sale is an adventure when you’re a startup. You desperately need to secure each potential transaction that comes your way. So, every customer is someone you are determined to satisfy because their unique experience may make the difference between success and failure.
But when early success now accounts for thousands of annual car sales, you face the challenge of managing a process. You lose your unique touch with each customer, finding that you can’t satisfy everyone and that every customer, like Tolstoy’s unhappy family, is unreasonable in their own way. Consequently, what was once a vocation for many of our sales team members has become a job, a step toward something better.
We were particularly challenged when it came to scaling the good feeling resulting from any personal transaction. When we started, we might meet each customer once or twice, particularly if all went well. But as we began to see up to ten customers daily, our organizational needs diverged from a strong focus on each transaction (which we assumed looked alike). As a result, while our customers were making one of the largest purchases of their life, our system for satisfying them increasingly failed to put the customer first.
… we worked to mitigate all pain points in the purchasing process.
Our initial strategy was to do everything possible to make it easier for customers to buy what they wanted. We didn’t want merely to sell cars — we felt that buying a car should be fun. So we worked to mitigate all pain points in the purchasing process. Since no one likes to haggle with an experienced car salesperson, we eliminated bargaining by setting a fixed price on the site. Because it’s a pain to travel from one brand dealership to the next, we created an infinite store on our website.
Despite all these countermeasures to emerging problems, we continued to battle the universal challenge of “big company disease”: Bureaucracy crept in and required more resources and attention than individual customers. We struggled, for example, to give our sales staff breathing room from the transactional work demanded by our systems, enabling them to focus on every client’s unique personal needs.
Our first countermeasure for the bloat of rapid growth was to steer attention to the right things by measuring essential items.
Our first countermeasure for the bloat of rapid growth was to steer attention to the right things by measuring essential items. We put customer satisfaction proxies such as the Net Promoter Score or the Google grade at the top of our scorecards. That helped, yet we still found many occasions when we walked the gemba where we could have approached customers better. We would hear sales staff refusing to give people exactly what they wanted, saying, “that’s just how the system works.” Moreover, we found ourselves dealing with daily snafus and mishandled calls. We told ourselves that not everyone can always be pleased and that a percentage of cheesed-off customers is a typical cost of business.
Of course, there is no ‘normal cost’ of doing business; there is only value or waste. And from our customer’s perspective, we were providing waste in the form of money, time, and inconvenience. So., as we slowly came to face this situation, our problem statement became, “How do we treat every customer as our first customer (her name was Mrs. Paunet)?”
… there is no ‘normal cost’ of doing business; there is only value or waste.
And so we began a dramatic reversal, shifting from simply firefighting to rethinking our fundamental approaches to delivering value to our customers. We transitioned from point to systems optimization. We would start every executive committee meeting with a real customer complaint case, which allowed us to return to the nitty gritty of facilitating car purchases. We identified key problems to face systematically by looking carefully at Google Reviews or customer complaints.
We thought more deeply about how we could deliver evermore value directly to the customer in every interaction and beyond the initial sale. We sought to boost the value we provided beyond the mere product in every way. Could we help with easy financing? Dramatically improve the admin process? Deliver the vehicle to their home?
We embarked on a learning journey to provide personalized service to each customer …
We embarked on a learning journey to provide personalized service to each customer, ensuring that they felt taken care of as a person. Ultimately, we wanted to build enduring trust and create passionate customers who would go on to promote us to others. As we thought hard about what service means, we ended up highlighting four core skills:
- Availability: We reviewed how quickly we responded to customers who contacted us. Tracking this metric was challenging because our time facing customers was relatively fixed, but demands crashed upon us in waves. Actions that helped improve customer response times included having a sales team leader deal with peaks and prioritizing replies to customer queries over completing internal tasks.
- Tone: We found that scaling a consistent and helpful tone was one of our greatest challenges. A salesperson’s tone is a mystery and has an outsized effect on how customers feel about things. Some people achieve a compassionate and helpful tone, while some don’t. And enabling people to get this right remains a constant struggle. So, we had experienced salespeople coach others.
- Communication of plans: Customers need clear and explicit details about what will happen so they can plan around it. We recognized this type of information comprised a huge portion of our overall offering and worked hard to clarify and communicate what to expect.
- Flexibility: We understood that customers have busy lives that can easily change quickly. And so, we explored ways to adapt in response and avoided rigid processes without leeway for change. We also encouraged staff to take the initiative and find ways to adapt to customer preferences even when doing so would sidestep the existing process. And we stressed to managers that this was a good thing.
As we evolved from a startup to a scaleup, we realized that attitudes don’t scale. We could improve our customer experience by gradually improving the product and doing whatever we could regarding service. But scaling up created a degree of bureaucracy in both our functional expert departments and in repeatable processes. We discovered that processes are essential to structure a larger enterprise but that processes can be the problem and people the solution.
We tackled this core challenge by developing leadership at all levels. We asked leaders to spot and encourage employees with authentic customer leadership beliefs and behaviors — who put customers first and business second. This development relies on the kaizen leadership of frontline managers. Constantly encouraging kaizen provides employees with the orientation and the space to think about customer problems.
Even this challenge recalled the underlying problem of resisting the bureaucratic bias of any large company. As we looked at our kaizen efforts at the gemba, we came to ask: Is this about giving better value to customers or solving an internal bureaucratic problem? While there is nothing wrong with solving internal issues that create the best working conditions for all our staff, we constantly had to remember the primary rule: Customers come first.
We realize maintaining a customer-first culture will be a never-ending effort.
Even after going public and enjoying continued growth, we still constantly struggle with this key issue: How do you retain and spread the customer-first spirit as you scale a startup? We’ve come to believe that you must always return to the question of value. What value do we really bring to customers? We’ve kept this on the front burner by discussing customer and employee satisfaction, from NPS and e-NPS measures, first in leadership discussions — particularly financial ones.
We realize maintaining a customer-first culture will be a never-ending effort. The forces of bureaucratic compliance are relentless. Yet, by recognizing this, we have learned to push back by asking for constant kaizen that aims to improve our service and product and by working tospot and support customer leaders in their daily jobs and through the ranks. As Fujio Cho taught us long ago: Put customers first, go and see, ask why, show respect.
This Lean Post is based on the book, Raise the Bar (2022).
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