A company restructuring is complex and many departments are affected. It is easy to lose customer focus in such a time. Read how you can involve your customers and let them guide you through the process:
The customer’s view of company restructuring
„I have no idea whom to call in which case. I want to buy … and all you do is sending me from A to B. Can you help me or will you transfer me again? Your company is too complex – do you ever think about your customers?“
What happened? An international company, which acquires and integrates two or three smaller companies per year, lost contact to it’s customers over time.
In many integration projects we are more internally focused than on the customers. Within a short timeframe two companies must grow together. All available energy is needed internally: sales needs to reorganise the territories and learn how to sell the new products, marketing needs to redesign the packaging and brochures, product managers benchmark products for the new positioning (and discontinuation), controlling has to keep an eye on finances and employees in customer service, accounting and warehouse are scared to lose their jobs.
Not without a reason – integration often means job cuts or even site closures. It is often assumed that the company wants to maximise profit, but often there are other reasons for a site closure. It is detrimental to the processes if all departments exists twice and they will not cooperate out of fear to make themselves superfluous. And it will confuse customers: „Why should I call in London for getting the invoice changed? Last week you did it yourself. You are one company, aren’t you?“
A company restructuring is complex and many departments are affected. It is easy to lose customer focus in such a time.
Too many cooks spoil the broth
No company likes speaking openly about a site closure. They are too worried about getting bad publicity and the resulting damage to their image, which can affect sales. Still they need to inform their customers somehow.
The customer letter is written by many people and shall reflect all their interests:
- Marketing wants to emphasize the benefit for the customers.
- Legal would prefer not to write anything at all – it could be used against the company.
- Leadership wants to avoid bad publicity at all costs.
- Finance wants to make sure the customers still pay their invoices. The leadership agrees and a large part of the letter is reserved for the bank information.
- Customer Service and Sales are worried about the customers and want maximum transparency – unfortunately the legal team deletes their contribution.
- The project manager wants to make sure that the customers actually read the letter. Thus it should not be longer than one page – half of which is needed for the bank information.
All these discussions need time. Finally the letter is sent far too late. A Q&A document is sent to the employees with instructions how to answer customer questions. The Q&As cause more questions than they answer, as the legal and human resources teams fear a lawsuit on reemployment.
Finally, in many cases the employees need to inform the regular customers personally about the future changes, as the letter didn’t reach the right people or wasn’t read.
The gap between information and communication
Information is not the same as communication and a letter will not establish understanding. Link zu http://changing-project-management.com/2015/04/21/change-management-die-5-schritte-zur-nachhaltigen-veraenderung/. The customers want to understand what the changes will mean for them, even if there is no or very little impact on their work. The phone lines and email addresses are forwarded in most cases, but still order entry will not run smoothly, some quotations may get lost during transfer, the delivery charges may change, the new processes are not well defined and employees in office and field are anxious and concerned. Also the customers pity the people who lost their jobs.
They have no forum to raise their concerns, as the communication plan is unidirectional: from the company to the customers. Real communication is not wanted – it could cause a disturbance. The bad new is that the customers are still worried which is made worse by nobody listening to their concerns and anger.
The gap is filled by the competitors. They are happy about every company restructuring. One of them said once to my boss: „You continue to focus on yourself. We will continue to woo your customers.“ Worst case the competitors fuel the uneasiness of the customers by sowing seeds of doubt in the company’s future.
There is a better way
Because of the beginning economic crisis the management of the American online retailer Zappos decided in 2008 to cut costs with the goal to stay in business. The company laid off 8% of their employees. At the day of the announcement the CEO Tony Hsieh sent an email to all employees which he published on the Zappos-Blog Link: http://blogs.zappos.com/blogs/ceo-and-coo-blog/2008/11/06/update – open to the public including customers, investors and competitors. He explained in details the reasons for the job cuts and the challenges for the company at that time. He also accepted them to comment on the lay-offs in public: „I’ve been asked by some employees whether it’s okay to twitter about what’s going on. Our Twitter policy remains the same as it’s always been: just be real, and use your best judgement.“ The employee’s tweets were even published on the company blog.
Many customers commented positively about Zappos’ transparency and the company image did not suffer. Link: http://blogs.zappos.com/blogs/ceo-and-coo-blog/2008/11/06/update . Today Zappos is said to be one of the most customer- and employee-friendly companies in the US.
What can you do?
Keep a strict focus on the customers during restructuring. Draw the map of a customer’s journey before and after. Not the ideal journey, but the real one: dig out the dirty details by speaking to your customers. What do customers find when searching for your products, services and contacts in the web? Which keywords do they search for (you will be surprised). What do they ask your sales reps and customer service? How many business cards of employees do they have (including the outdated one’s of former employees) and are you able to identify the business unit those employees work(ed) for? Is it easy to find up to date site addresses in the web? Don’t forget to check address databases in the web which are out of your control.
Get sales and customer service involved at an early stage and give them all information available plus the freedom to speak openly – maybe including Twitter. They will speak about it anyway, its just a question of where and how.
Appoint a communication manager and publish her contact data on your homepage. The position should not be in the legal department or in marketing. Find a communication specialist and give her full access to information and resources and most important trust her.
Inform your customers often and be transparent about new concepts, processes and demands – even if the customers should not be affected. Have a place for it on your homepage. In case of really important changes send a mail. Tell them if processes in order fulfillment or customer service may not run smoothly because of organisational changes. Give the employees access to an honest Q&A document to prepare them for questions.
Invite your most important customers to a meeting or a tele conference. Start it by giving them time to voice their concerns and their criticism. That’s more important than a well rehearsed, polished and meaningless presentation.
Collect customer feedback and concerns and address it. Change the project plan if necessary. Actively seek for customer comments in the web. Be prepared to give some thought to any ill-informed and mean comment you will find as they are an indicator for the success you may have with implementing the change.
At the end of the project have a lessons learned meeting. Link zu http://changing-project-management.com/2014/11/11/retrospektiven/. Be brutally honest and speak about everything you learned from customers and employees. Develop a strategy to take countermeasures before it is too late.
Summary: Let the customers be your guides. They pay your wages, your company just handles the money. (based on a quote by Henry Ford)
This topic is emotional for me. During the past 5 years I worked as technical support manager and sub-project leader in three company integrations and one company divestiture. I have seen colleagues and employees joining and leaving the company. Within a short time frame I had to double the size of my team to take over new responsibilities and two years later I had to lay off all my employees. In the last integration project I abolished my own job. To write this article I had to touch a sore spot.
Wiebke Wetzel is the Customer Wizard. She will help you to listen to your customers and to learn from them. Visit her web portal at http://www.wiebke-wetzel.com.