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Customer Responsiveness

Agility—as I covered in the last chapter—is essentially a customer-driven concept. All seven dimensions of agility impact the customer somehow. The dimensions of recovery and customer responsiveness are directly related to the customer, and the other five are indirectly related. Since business is dependent on customers, and agility is a customer-centric idea, it’s reasonable to include customer responsiveness in the model as a separate dimension.

What’s more, an enterprise can be agile, maneuverable, and speedy and still disappoint the customer. In 1956, Peter Drucker, the great management thinker, famously replied to the question, What is the purpose of a business? with the following response: The purpose of a business is to find and keep a customer.5 Brilliant in its simplicity, Drucker’s response captures the essence of business.

Without customers, a venture isn’t a business. Without at least a handful of customers, a business probably won’t survive, let alone prosper. So any model of performance—particularly one based on agility—can’t ignore the customer as its central focal point. Ideally, everything that is said, thought about, or done in an enterprise should have the customer top of mind. All aspects of a business’s operational performance, in other words, should be considered from the perspective of the customer. Producing good quality, value-for-money products or services that are sought-after, in the first step is being customer responsive.

Apart from having something worth selling, customer responsiveness refers to the capability and desire to react swiftly to customer inquiries and requests. Customer responsiveness is a reactive type of agility, unlike, for example, being innovative, which is a proactive behavior. In practice, customer responsiveness is returning phone calls from customers and responding to their email requests promptly, putting customers in touch with the “right” person, and adequately answering their questions and helping them solve their problems. Having the right systems and processes in place helps to react with speed and priority. This is easier said than done, particularly when a business uses out-of-date people management practices, such as restricted communication channels between managers and employees. But the bottom line is this: Show me a thriving business, and I’ll show you a business with extraordinary agility in its responsiveness to customers.

The reason customer responsiveness is elusive isn’t due to a lack of will on the part of the business owner; it’s because of internal barriers caused by performance management traditions. Consider the job description; one such obstacle. The job description is designed to quarantine the employee’s thinking and activity around a small chunk of work called a job. The concept of the job has been in existence for a little over 200 years. The job-holder often fails to see past their job boundary to think about dealing with a customer’s request in a thoughtful, creative way, unless perhaps they have a customer service job. And even for jobs designed to service the customer, being responsive is not as simple as it sounds.

To be truly responsive and agile with customers, a job-holder needs personal qualities like initiative, resourcefulness, and empathy. But the job description typically prescribes a standardized, predictable way of dealing with the customer. A bunch of KPIs generally support this prescribed, depersonalized process. This homogenized approach therefore impedes agile, flexible, and responsive behavior. The mental straightjacket the job description places upon the job-holder is further reinforced by a system of “Pavlovian conditioning.”6 Put another way, the extrinsic reward and punishment scheme is intended to get the employee to follow the perfunctory work document: the job description.

Even when the job description mentions the requirement to be customer responsive, the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality. Managers— striving to keep control—favor employees reacting to customers in uniform, expected ways (“Do you want fries with that?”). QA is paramount. Managers fashion and fortify a regulated work-setting, one that is easy to manage, manipulate, and remunerate. Needless to say, this workplace asphyxiates enterprising behavior; the trademark of customer responsiveness.

Notwithstanding these performance inhibitions, today’s complex economy and the accelerating rate of transformation puts a premium on enterprise responsiveness. Overwhelmingly, senior executives the world over believe that the ability to anticipate and address the forces affecting the business is critical to business success.7 So responsiveness—particular customer responsiveness—is an important dimension of agility.

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