I am sure some readers might be wondering if I am being serious at all because as far as they know the average CEO should be too busy to be taking time off to engage with customers. But I am dead serious. We make time for the things that are important to us. Therefore, if customers are that important to the organisation, then the most important person within that organisation must make time for the customer. So the key issue is not whether the CEO must makes time for customers or not; it is about how the CEO finds that time.
It is a fact that some of the finest CEOs have always made it a point to make time to engage with customers. But how do they pull this off? How are they able to squeeze in time off their busy schedules to meet with customers regularly? What are some ways that bosses can actually use to come across as customer-friendly?
The first and obvious way a CEO can come across as customer-friendly is to be physically accessible to customers. If the setup of the organisation allows that, such as in a supermarket, banking hall, etc., the CEO must occasionally walk through where customers can easily see him or her and be able to talk to the one. It is useless for a CEO to come walk through customers and not talk to them. It adds to the image of customer friendliness if the CEO even goes ahead to serve customers.
There is something really impressive about the CEO of a supermarket serving customers at the counter, helping to bag groceries or even helping pack purchases into shopping carts. It will do wonders for the customer’s impression of a bank for the one to be served at the counter by the Managing Director of the bank.
Another way the boss can physically get close to customers is to visit them in their various offices or homes. This is a very powerful way for the boss to show customers that the relationship means a lot to the organisation. Customers know Chief Executives are very busy people. Therefore if one paid you a visit, then you must be very important. A pleasant surprise visit to a customer’s office by the Managing Director will forever linger in the mind of that customer. If the visit is also accompanied by a gift, then the bond might become stronger.
One other way for a CEO to be more accessible to customers is to provide a direct telephone line to all customers, as was done once by a highly-rated CEO in this country. Although many bosses will cringe at the thought of availing themselves to that many customers, that fear is really not founded. The position of a CEO is one that is really held in high esteem. The power a CEO wields to hire and fire makes the one someone not be toyed with. The average customer would therefore not call for calling sake. The customer would think twice before picking a phone to call the big boss. A customer who would therefore pick a phone to call the boss must therefore have something very important to share with the CEO.
Phone calls can be quite disruptive, especially for a busy CEO. Therefore, one way a CEO can remain customer-friendly, without the stress of the phone call, is to advise customers to either text or send their complaints, suggestions or concerns via a service like WhatsApp. Customers would gladly utilise this service, especially if they know their concerns would be addressed—and addressed as quickly as practicable. I know of a big boss in one of the state-owned enterprises who receives customer complaints via WhatsApp. His permanent status on WhatsApp however is “urgent calls only”. I doubt if anyone ever calls him.
We find ourselves in a time when there is enough technology around to make the CEO’s need to engage with their customers very easy. CEOs can use the magic of social media and other online means to engage with as many of their customers as possible at the same time. A study by Weber Shandwick in 2010 revealed at the time that as many as 64% of Chief Executives were not using social media. Things are however changing for the better now.
Social media provides another wonderful opportunity for CEOs to show their customer-friendly side, although it seems many are still not leveraging the power of this outlet. According to a January 2016 report published on weekly American advertising trade publication, Adweek, 61% of Fortune 500 CEOs have no social media presence. The same report alleges that less than 12 percent of these bosses are active on more than one channel.
In choosing a social media platform to use to reach customers, it is important to weigh the pros and cons of all options. As was said by Gary Vaynerchuk in his book, Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, “Though the functions of every (social media) platform may sometimes overlap, each one cultivates a unique language, culture, sensibility, and style.” In other words, what will work on one platform will not work on another. Because some of the platforms are text-heavy while others are visual-biased, their uses and the users they attract are also different.
For Chief Executives on social media, it seems their favoured platform is LinkedIn. Twitter is the next most popular. Facebook has its advantages and can do wonders for the image of the Chief Executive. However, it is a potential landmine field, so the boss who decides to use Facebook must be extra choosy as to whose invitation to accept. There are keyboard assassins and trolls waiting to pounce. YouTube, as is widely known, makes uses of videos. Therefore, if the CEO wants to send messages to customers via video, then a YouTube channel will just be ideal.
One thing customers would expect from a CEO who decides to go social is for their concerns to be responded to as quickly as possible. Customers of today have become so used to expecting their requests responded to in real time. Therefore if a CEO takes too long in responding to a concern, then the whole social media experiment might backfire spectacularly. The time spent on social media in itself is a huge challenge for most CEOs. Therefore the best advice would be to be consistent with the time spent on whatever platform is chosen. When customers know that on a certain day of the week and for a certain number of minutes (or hours) the CEO will be available on a particular platform, they would become used to that pattern. That will be better than coming on the platform for a certain period and the disappearing thereafter for long periods.
One last way a CEO can be more customer-friendly is by writing letters of appreciation to customers. It is true that letter writing is a dying art but it is for that very reason that makes it a very powerful means of getting the attention of customers. A well-written letter can become a valued memento for the customer. It is estimated that during his ten-year tenure as the CEO of British supermarket giant, Sainsbury’s, Justin King wrote to almost three customers every single day. As a matter of fact, it is reported that in his first six months of taking up the role as the CEO of Sainsbury’s, King listened to more than 250,000 customers. He was so bent on ensuring that the company, which was struggling at the time, was revived that he spent as much time as possible with as many customers as possible.
The need for organisations to be headed by customer-friendly bosses will only grow. As the customer base becomes more and more social-media savvy, they will seek more accessibility from the leaders of the organisations whose products or services they patronise. The CEO of the future must necessarily be a customer-friendly boss. The new generation of customers will base their purchasing decisions on how customer friendly the boss is—and if they are not impressed, they would take their business elsewhere.
Research shows that the customers of tomorrow will actually demand that CEOs engage with them more. It is a well-known fact that the most successful business owners, managers and supervisors are those that constantly stay in touch with their customers. The secret is that by staying in touch with their customers, they are able to stay connected to the needs of those customers. By knowing and catering to those needs, these business leaders are able to capture both the hearts and purses of their customers and this is the secret behind their success. The customer-friendly boss makes for business sense. As the business grows, however, it becomes a lot more difficulty for the CEO to stay in close touch with customers. Fortunately, technological advancement has made it a lot more manageable for the boss to stay as customer-friendly as possible.
To the Memory of the Most Customer-Friendly CEO I Ever Worked With,
Dr. P. A. Kuranchie,
REST IN PEACE, SIR!