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Customer-driven business alignment and lessons from 5 most influential business leaders

By Eze Nwagbaraji

The global market collapse precipitated by the implosion of the American mortgage and housing markets between 1997 and 1998 have created one of the most enduring lessons for business leaders. Global business leaders are still smarting from the harsh realities of what may indeed be the first real worldwide business disruption over the past 100 years.

World War I and II left their business disruptions, including the American great depression. Business disruptions caused by the harsh economic effects of the World Wars were mainly to European economies. African countries were mostly colonies of these European countries and did not suffer as much. But the first global market implosion of the 21st Century is all embracing.

Economies, businesses, and markets on the African continent took as much pain as the countries of Europe and North America. Further, the latest recession is on the heels of a global market place that have continued to shrink pursuant to the penetrating impact of technology.

To be successful, businesses on the African continent must now compete with businesses in some of the most advanced and well organized economies of Europe and North America. The global market place of the 21st Century has made customers across sovereign borders available to numerous businesses. With this comes the painful reality of adopting best practices as a business and operating in markets with efficient or near efficient regulatory systems, an attribute that is significantly lacking in most African economies.

In both telecommunications and banking, for example, African market regulatory regimes have not hesitate to invite European, American, and Asian private corporations to become participants in local markets.  While these acts portend well for effective service delivery to consumers, what these regimes have not articulated well is how to better create and sustain regulatory regimes capable of ushering in businesses that are consumer friendly, less exploitative, and fair to local and indigenous market participants.

The telecommunications market in countries such as Nigeria and Ghana, for example, have been deregulated and liberalized for more than a decade now, however, Nigerian cell phone subscribers pay one of the most expensive telecommunication rates in the world.

More than seventy-five percent of Nigerian telecommunications consumers are forced into pre-paid schemes that have turned the telecommunications companies into one of the largest receivers of customer funds deposited for future use of their services.

These pre-paid customers by default have become the financiers of these telecommunication companies. Customer services at these telecommunications companies are poorly manned and geared towards deterring any meaningful resolution of consumer issues. Agencies that are supposed to supervise these outfits lack the capacity to engage in any serious consumer oriented market regulatory activities.

The commercial banks are not an exception. Several of the banks do not provide monthly detailed statements to their customers. Banks such as Zenith charge their customers for the use of Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) owned and domiciled in their branch offices. UBA for example refuse to issue teller checks to its current account customers who either approach the bank for such services. They would rather have the customer order new set of checks at higher costs.

Over the past two months, all commercial banking outfits in Nigeria now require those who approach them to redeem or claim funds wired via Western Union and Moneygram to open accounts with them before they would allow redemption of such funds, irrespective of the amounts of the funds. Ironically, Western Union, an American company, does not even require customers wiring or receiving funds less than one thousand US Dollars to produce any identifications and no commercial bank in the United States accepts or redeems any funds through Western Union.

Western Union and Moneygram are services provided at mom and pop convenience stores and at numerous petrol stations. Every bank in such Nigerian cities as Abuja and Lagos now display the Western Union and Moneygram logo, but do not redeem such services. Customers are either redirected to other branches of the banks or advised that the system is down.

Every commercial bank branch in Nigeria displays its exchange rates (buying and selling rates) for such foreign currencies as the US Dollar, the British Pound Sterling, the Euro, etc.  However, these banks do not engage in these transactions, and if they do, the rates quoted are not the rates they operate with. When questioned, several will tell you that it is a directive from the Central Bank of Nigeria that such notices and rates be conspicuously displayed.

Customer-Driven Business Alignment
The core responsibility of a manager or a management team in any corporate or business setting is to enhance shareholders’ assets, i.e. create profits for those who invested their private funds through various investment vehicles into the corporation.

Empirical evidence have shown that companies that withstood the tests of time and the rough and tumble seasons of all business cycles are those that have mastered and followed the concept of effective customer service delivery. Sam Walton, the legendary American founder of Wal-Mart Stores, put it best – “There is only one boss – ‘the customer.’”
Organising a corporation vision and operational strategy around what customers want sounds easy, but it is perhaps the most difficult to carry out consistently well.

It is the most dominant trait found in every successful global brand. Coca Cola, Pepsi, Honda, etc., are some of the greatest adapters of customer driven business alignments. Even in the world of entertainment, such names a Michael Jackson, Madonna, Obey, etc. have become national and global brands, based on their adaptive responses to customer needs.

Toyota Motor Corporation for example, followed this doctrine for several years and emerged as one of the dominant automobile manufacturing outfits. However, as soon as the Corporation shifted its focus from customer interests to pursuing General Motors in attempts to supplant General Motors as the world’s largest manufacturer of automobiles, Toyota created a series of quality based snafues in some of its largest markets in North American and Europe and to date is still fighting to rectify quality missteps in its line of products.

Customer driven value business leaders understand that they cannot be all things to all market segments. These companies are focussed and through tough strategies choose their customer segments, offer a value proposition that is distinct from competitors’, and deliver this value with a business model that is optimized for their market. They are careful in their choices and vigilant in their outlook as they seek to profit from customer business value leadership.
Winning the battle for current customers is not enough.

Companies must relentlessly drive growth by innovating new value for current customers and attracting new customers. Customer value innovation is not restricted to technology advances. Customer value innovators see opportunities for growth along every dimension of a competitive strategy. They pursue new market geographies and new customer segments, create new and enriched customer experiences, rethink the profile of features in ways that competitors can’t match, and reconfigure the way they create and capture value.

Corporations and Companies that have mastered the customer driven market imperative have found a way to consistently turn customer value into valuable customers. These customers are assets that lead to consistent profit for the corporation. They purchase more in a category, purchase across categories, purchase new products, respond faster to company marketing activities, they defect at lower rates to the competition, investing in the relationship, and promoting the company more by word of mouth.

A strong brand makes a credible promise to deliver a meaningful benefit. However, companies that master this imperative go further to turn their strong brands into profits.  These brand asset managers devote sustained attention to building the brand by adopting a long-run investment perspective, protecting the customers interests with the full understanding that a satisfied customer remains the most lucrative return a corporation can achieve.

A corporation that stands in the customer’s shoe will most likely create a strategic business model focused on the customer. The corporation assesses what it is good at, given its resources, product lines, and capabilities. Efficiency sets in when the corporation attempts to use its resources to meet the customer needs.

After the recent global recession and contractions in the global markets, customer driven approach to business strategy acquired added importance. To compete effectively in the global market, businesses must now respond to customer needs in more organized and time sensitive manners, bearing in mind that the increased complexities of competitive markets have weakened the barriers to entry in several industries and markets.

For market regulatory regimes and institutions, the importance of efficient surveillance of customer services and prevention of sharp practices have emerged as the most significant areas of regulatory oversight.

Lessons from 5 Modern Influential Business Leaders
Sam Walton’s principle is simple: “A single person can make a huge difference in an industry. It does not happen overnight, especially in retail, but it can happen over a period of years.”  Along with his belief of delivering great values at low prices to his customers, Sam Walton turned a one store retail outfit he found in 1945 in Bentonville, Arkansas, United States into a mega corporation with market capitalisation of US$200 billion and annual sales in excess of US$300 billion.

To date, the Wal-Mart retail machine operates 803 discounts stores, 2,747 supercenters, 158 neighborhood markets, and 596 Sam’s Clubs in the United States, 43 units in Argentina, 434 in Brazil, 317 in Canada, 252 in Chile, 170 in Costa Rica, 77 in El Salvador, 164 in Guatemala, 53 in Honduras, one in India, 371 in Japan, 1,469 in Mexico, 55 in Nicaragua, 56 in Puerto Rico, 371 in the United Kingdom, and 279 in the Peoples Republic of China.

Wal-Mart is the largest employer of non-military labor in the United States. At the entrance to each Wal-Mart Store is a smiling and friendly face that greets each customer, extending pleasantries and suggesting the day’s daily deals or discounted products. As the customer exits the store, another smiling face is at the exit, asking whether the customer purchased all they had come to the store to buy.

Andy Grove, co-founder of Intel Corporation was another contemporary business leader, who understood the value of a satisfied customer. Grove is not your run on the mill kind of business leader.


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