0 looking through fingers

It never ceases to amaze me how often I hear stories describing senior leaders lack of desire to speak to, meet or have any direct interaction with customers. Despite the fact that they are leading large teams of customer facing people, an irrational fear of coming face to face with the paying customer is more common than you might think.

It is true to say that many modern business leaders are recruited for their expert strategic decision making and financial prowess – in fact a large proportion of senior executives are accountants! Yet to be able to make the best decisions about the strategic direction of your company, it is imperative that those making the decisions know exactly what it feels like to be a customer – or at least to have an understanding of what customers are saying.

Have you ever attempted to contact the CEO of a company in order to make a complaint? How often has the CEO you have written to actually responded personally? You could argue that most CEOs are far too busy to actually take the time to respond to all correspondence – but should you ever be too busy to communicate with a customer? One of my previous CEOs read every piece of correspondence addressed to him – although he did not often write responses himself, he would not let a single letter leave the building with his name at the bottom unless he personally approved it.

It is actually very easy to find the senior leader of a company these days. You can find the email address for the CEOs of all UK companies via ceoemail.com – it is a very useful resource. It is also pretty easy to locate senior leaders via LinkedIn – in 2014, it is very difficult to hide anywhere online!!

So what should a senior leader do if contacted directly by a customer? To answer this question, I am going to share an example of what not to do. It is sometimes best to look at a horror story, to demonstrate exactly why I think it is important to never be afraid of talking to customers. The story I am going to share is not mine – it has been passed on to be by a friend. In order to protect the identities of the individuals concerned, I have changed the names of both the sender and receiver – the content of the interaction is 100% genuine though.

What you are about to read is an email exchange between a customer and his energy provider. The customer is also a Director of a large business himself. In this first extract of the conversation, he has emailed the Customer Service Director of the energy company:

0 energy company1

It does not take a genius to realise that this customer is really not very happy. He has taken the time to find out who the Customer Service Director is, and is making it quite clear that he expects something to happen. A little while later, having not had a response, the customer sends a follow-up email:

0 energy company2

By now alarm bells should be ringing. To be clear, the customer in the actual email exchange does not disguise who he is or the fact that he is also a senior leader in an organisation. I do not know about you, but I would be considering picking up the phone to speak to this particular customer. That is not what happens! A day after his second email, the following arrived in his inbox:

0 energy company3

The fictional Patricia Harley is a PA at the energy company. The customer did not get the response from the Customer Service Director he was hoping for – he got a response from a personal assistant instead. You do not need to know which company this is to recognise where the customer experience may come in the list of priorities. By now, the customer is infuriated, leading to him to send the following email:

0 energy company4

We can all make assumptions as to why we think it is that senior leaders like the fictional James do not take the time to respond personally when customers contact them. It is often impossible for some leaders to respond personally to everything. However I know from my own experiences that if something goes wrong, and it is my name that is on a letter or an email, then it should be me that responds personally.

Senior leaders of organisations should never be afraid to come face to face with a customer – quite the contrary – they should see meeting customers (whether they be very happy or very angry) as a wonderful opportunity. The most customer centric organisations in the world thrive on all levels of the organisation regularly experiencing what both customers and colleagues experience. There is no better way to influence strategic decision-making than using genuine customer experiences as collateral for driving change.

By the way, spare a thought for the poor fictional Patricia (or the thousands like her who are used as a human shield by senior leaders too afraid to interact),  hers is not a position I would like to be in. I am unable to share the end of this particular customer story – I do not hold out much hope for it ending well. I suspect that my fictional John Smith will be looking for an alternative energy source in the not too distant future.