As of June 2014, the current situation in Iraq is spiraling out of control. A new, spin-off terrorist faction called ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is committing atrocities and taking ground in north-central Iraq and moving southward toward Baghdad, changing the short-lived democratic face of the region and creating scenarios and military alliances of convenience that one would have thought implausible two weeks ago. Although the region has always been unstable (and likely always will be), many analysts concur that the United States’ troop draw down to essentially zero has created a power vacuum, with current Iraqi security forces unable to defend territory and a government in disarray.
Folks, there are business lessons to be learned here.
“How on earth are you making the comparison between the current situation in Iraq, where civilians are systematically killed during the terrorist overrun of cities, and business?”, I can hear you screaming at your screen.
While the severity of the consequences in business would rarely approach that of the potential of death and torture, human nature is human nature and as is often the case, human behavior follows patterns, and the world political stage can indeed serve as a learning lab for your business. The parallels between war and business can seem a bit over-dramatic, but still apply. I’m talking about your current customers and how you treat them, and what happens as a result.
Customer Loyalty is Dead
“Today we are only loyal to a brand or service as long as there is something in it for us”, or so says Rajat Sethi in his May, BusinessWorld article on the subject. I have to agree with him, and although he’s talking about B2C situations, the same axiom exists in B2B. Customer loyalty tends to be the most taken for granted aspect of the provider/customer dynamic in business today. No matter how many firms profess to take care of their customers and treat them like precious cargo, the sad reality is, many don’t. In the world economy today, the pressure to create new business is so intense that new business development tends to dominate the attention of many firms.
Loyalty tends to be inversely proportional with choice, so with things like technology products and services, the really good firms do enjoy some advantage over a B2C situation, where choice now is almost limitless. That’s only because there are many disreputable firms out there that have left deep wounds with customers. But that’s changing as communication technology puts just about any service provider within a few Google searches of your customers.
So what’s this got to do with Iraq? Well, when you’re done with your successful engagement serving your customer, ask yourself if your company disengages too fast. This happens if there is an extended drought between projects. We just start focusing on current revenue opportunities and don’t keep the current but dormant customer machine oiled. In other words, absent current chaos and crisis (sales opportunities), it’s easy to take your eye off the ball. That’s the unplanned, unannounced, but very real disengagement.
When the giant statue of Saddam Hussein was toppling in Baghdad when Iraq was liberated, the US troops were praised in the streets. Now, less than a decade later, the local mood is very different. The US pull out has allowed the rats to re-infest the country in an all-out, no-holds barred terrorist power grab, much to the chagrin of innocent civilians and the current Iraqi government.
Your customers will lose loyalty too if you don’t stay engaged, and proactively seek to help them with problems. In that vacuum, other “grass is greener” offers will be made by competitors, some who will provide offers or use tactics that turn those once loyal fans against your firm, too.
When Dependency is Broken
Militarily speaking, no one from the United States wanted our troops to be forever imbedded in Iraq. People nearly universally supported the decision to go into the country to defend US interests in 2003, but quickly lost the appetite for the war effort. Once we saw it wasn’t going to be quick and easy (like the 1991 liberation of Kuwait), opinions soured.
Our objective was to train Iraqi forces to hold and defend their new found freedom, but current events clearly demonstrate that that was unsuccessful. The rapid withdrawal of US forces was like a chain smoker trying to go cold turkey overnight. It might be the best thing for him, but unfortunately, he’s likely to drift back to the habit. At a minimum he finds a substitute habit which may not be very empowering, maybe even dangerous (can you say e-cigarette?). Even though the players have changed, Iraq seems poised to drift back to the same type of country, perhaps even worse, than before Saddam’s overthrow.
In business, most of us would like our customers to have some kind of dependency on us for the sake of repeat business. If you’re fortunate enough to have landed long-term, renewable contracts—that is, your customer has made the conscious decision to outsource a function to your company—this inter-dependency is public and mutually beneficial.
But your customers may have a hidden dependency on you that isn’t so apparent, even when you work project to project. It might be subtle strategic direction, or the non-requested but valuable information on how to best use what you’ve provided already, or simply insights on making life easier. Total or even systematic withdrawal breaks that hidden dependency on the little things. Like the smoker, your customers will fill that need, and if they cannot get that value from you, competitors will gladly step into the breach, and they won’t need the forced violence of ISIS to do it.
How to Re-Engage and Save the Day
Only after calamity struck did the real consequences of the US withdrawal become clear in Iraq. This happens in business too, when your company ends up losing out on the next big project for what was thought to be an unwaveringly loyal customer. Sometimes you find out a big project happened without even being asked to the bidding table. If you’ve completely disengaged from a customer, this happens more often than you’ll ever know.
You may also realize that a lot has changed since you were last on the inside with the customer, and the replacement regime may have totally created a cluster while you were away. You’ll take at least some of the blame for that one, too.
So how do you put things right? This is the same dilemma facing the Obamma administration right now in Iraq. Carpet bombing campaigns? Send in a frontal troop assault? Diplomacy? Send in the military, yet non-military consultants? Throw in with Iran for mutual self-interest?
Just like the choices that the United States now faces in Iraq, there is no single right solution. Here is an approach that has a good chance to get back the customer, fix the mess, and save the day.
- It starts with admitting your mistake and owning that your negligence toward your customer played a big part in you no longer being needed. With that admission, you can focus on lessons learned and your remedy often becomes clear.
- Tactfully and slowly begin to re-engage with the customer, even going so far as to apologize for neglecting the account and offering informational or hard, tangible value to re-establish the relationship. Take note that this might feel like starting from ground zero, because the people that you pleased and that advocated for you may no longer work there.
- If you’re absence did create havoc, offer to develop a plan to help the customer get on sound footing again. Do NOT take the “I told you so” approach that you’ll be dying to use. It will backfire. Even though another firm left the wake of destruction, you let it happen.
- With the customer’s permission and support, start working the plan. Once you fix a few things and re-affirm your ongoing support, the pace of services and products that you can offer the customer will pick up, naturally.
Will that 4-step approach work? Maybe…maybe not. If things have improved since you abandoned this customer, you’ll have a hard time getting back in and have to wait for the new, favored supplier to falter to get your chance. Regardless of your strategy, just make sure you have one that leverages strength of relationships that remain and lessons learned. Re-engaging without one will likely result in complete breakdown and losing that customer forever.
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