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Arbitrary Boundaries November 13, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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Recently, I received notice that one of my vendors had added me to their online customer portal and made me part of the “Eastern Region Group.” Apparently, this gives me access to certain forums and resources shared by everyone in the East.  I’ll confess: I don’t get it.

I understand why this vendor might divide their customers into regional groups.  Presumably, they assign local resources to each group to improve response time, reduce travel costs, and increase customer satisfaction in some way.  But does this have any value or meaning from the customers’ perspective?

It seems that in this day and age of global communication, sequestering customers by geography is so… last century.  The idea that you are doing so in an online forum that transcends time and distance is delightfully ironic.

But it doesn’t just happen online.  How many customer receptions have you attended where tables are arranged and labeled by geography?  Is it really important that I sit with other people from the East?  Aren’t there interesting people from the West that I might want to speak with?  Why not just divide us by height, or middle initial? I suspect that’s just as effective in creating good conversation as anything else.

What’s really happening here?  An internal organizational tool is being exposed and applied externally, without providing value to the customer.  Those internal tools have clear value in managing costs and personnel.  Externally, they are confusing and create false divisions in your customer base.

This problem doesn’t just exist in sales organizations. How often do we expose architectural limitations or development constraints, much to the dismay of our customers?  Try explaining size limits on email to someone who just wants to send a big, business-related file to a customer.  They get annoyed and you look petty.

The root of this lies in our failure to identify with and become champions for our customers, from their viewpoint.  While we may have many useful internal mechanisms that allow us to operate effectively, very few of those mechanisms have any meaning to our customers.  Instead, they seem arbitrary and restrictive.

We need to develop a service model and world view that makes sense to our customers.  We need to interact with them in that model, and never ask them to step outside of it.  As needed, we need to translate their requirements from that space to our internal world.  Our internal model is probably more complicated than our customers think, and that’s OK.  We are supposed to translate from their simpler model to our complex one on their behalf. There’s a special name for that translation: “customer service.”

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