SEEING A FIRM THROUGH THE CUSTOMER'S EYES Few companies organize themselves from the perspective of outsiders


Almost all enterprises -- hospitals, manufacturers, banks -- are organized around, and for the convenience of, the "production function." The hospital is chiefly concocted to support doctors, surgery and lab work. Manufacturers are fashioned to maximize factory efficiency. The bank is largely the byproduct of "best backroom (operations) practice."

I'm not arguing that there's no customer benefit. The patient generally gets well, the car or zipper usually works and the bank account is serviced. And enterprises do reach out, sporadically, to customers -- holding focus groups, providing toll-free numbers to enhance customer dialogue or offering "customer care" training to staff.

But how many build the entire logic of the firm around the flow of the customer through the A-to-Z process of experiencing the organization? Answer: Darn few!

Disney is the most notable exception. Its business concept is the creation of superb customer episodes, starting in the parking lot. Or even sooner: Fly to Orlando, Fla., on Delta, for example, and you'll become tangled in Disney's tentacles in the air, or at least at the Orlando International Airport. Disney obviously promotes fantasy and makes no bones about it.

"Not my company," you say. "Baloney," I say.

There is no reality! Everyday life is the tinted product of our cockeyed imaginations. And the bottom line in commercial life is the sum total of conjured-up dramas created by our customers. Now suppose, as a car or computer maker, a restaurant or hospital maestro, you bought that notion, embraced the "imagineering" business, as Disney calls it, then designed and ran your outfit accordingly.

You'd start down the new strategic path, which necessarily means "zero-basing" your entire enterprise, by gluing yourself to customers, tagging around after them, developing a sense of the myriad of ways they "get a handle" on your company, how they form first impressions of you (from ads, landscaping, angry ex-customers, rumors, vendors, etc.). That is, what "vibes" -- exactly the right word -- do you give off from up close and from afar.

From there, the process of specifying the customer's interchange with you proceeds logically, and illogically. Part of the answer can be mapped in a careful, linear fashion.

The map, on the other hand, must always put the purchaser at the center of the universe. That is where you and I as customers always put ourselves, as we create a script with idiosyncratic us starring in "me and Marriott," "me and DEC," "me and Johns Hopkins Hospital."

As for the illogical, remember we're dealing with pure fantasy: What are the scenes, acts, rhythms, tastes, smells and textures of Apple, Microsoft, Marriott, Banana Republic to a typical customer?

Such "outside-in" imagery -- with the purchaser at the center -- clashes with the current "customer focus" craze. Customer focus still clutches the tired imagery of "us" deigning to attend to "them," "us" as active (the actors), "they" as passive (audience), "us" as the sun around which "they," the customers, revolve. In an illusory world, semantics by definition is everything, and "outside-in," "screenplay and direction by customer," or "customer experience-created" are more appropriate phrases. "We" are a mere derivative, the bit players in "their" show, not the reverse!

Such an approach requires discipline, playfulness and an obsession for clean-sheet-of-paper reconception of every iota of your business. According to the new model, for example, the factory, operating room or kitchen gets invented last, not first. The production function, regardless of the type of enterprise, is the consequence of the fantasy you hope customers will weave.

Yet such an approach may lead, surprisingly, to more emphasis on the "factory" -- e.g., the way stellar car dealer Carl Sewell invites customers to experience the innards of his service department, the way smart manufacturers such as printer Quad/Graphics and hosemaker Titeflex use their plants as showrooms and their plant workers as chief salespersons.

(Incidentally, even "map" and "clean-sheet-of-paper" are flawed images. Both are static and two-dimensional. We shouldn't rely on traditional cartographers, draftsmen or engineers, but should perhaps seek out virtual-reality experts, software game creators and theater directors to guide us.)

This concept clearly ought to be repeated for each set of stakeholders. Consider prospective employees: How do they create their Nordstrom fantasy, starting with the style of help-wanted ads or word-of-mouth from employees or alumni?

How do vendors "imagine" you? Regulators?

I'll be the first to acknowledge that what I'm suggesting will be tough sledding. You'll doubtless need outside help, since seeing yourself in little ways and through naive eyes is essential.

But above all, a no-nonsense strategy requires clinging to words like myth, fantasy and illusion. For better or for worse, your outfit is not real. It is no more and no less than the sum total of fictionalized, elliptical images created by your customers, employees, vendors, distributors and communities as they experience you on a day-to-day basis.

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