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Time to challenge the notion of business-as-usual

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Workshop It’s 2011, the age of high-speed electronic communications, and we still see companies faxing orders to suppliers and insisting on paper invoices. Banks are still struggling to recognise the real person among the tangle of account records they maintain, and calling a telco customer services line with even the simplest of requests can mean hanging on for ages only to be passed infuriatingly from department to department.

We could also talk about retailer disjoints between the web and the high street, broken promises on delivery of goods, small businesses being abused by corporates on payment terms, and the black hole your request appears to vanish into when you fill out any Contact us form on a website and press Send.

Most of us could rant on for hours about stuff like this. You could argue that it’s easy to focus on bad experiences and to forget all of the times when things work fine, but the reality is that few organisations deal with customers, suppliers and partners as well as they would like to.

But so what? Business still gets done, doesn’t it? Customers still buy stuff and suppliers still deliver their goods and services. If you are running a business, why not just ignore all the moaning and complaints and just carry on with business as usual?

"There is probably more technology around today to optimise sales, fulfilment and service activities than ever before"

Over the next few weeks, these are some of the questions we will be asking as part of our latest reader workshop, entitled Doing Better Business. The focus is on smartening up the way we deal with customers, suppliers and partners, and on some of the things you might do to improve things. We will obviously be paying attention to the role of IT in all this.

To kick off the discussion, have a think about how customers are acquired, managed and supported in your organisation. The chances are that something has popped into your mind at this stage – something that’s broken or isn’t working very well. You won’t be unusual in this, nor perhaps in thinking that the consequences of customer-related problems are often not taken seriously because everyone is focused on their own part of the business.

The marketing department, for example, might be generating lots of sales leads but the sales team is complaining that the leads are dross, and that they might as well just stick a pin in a telephone directory and call people at random. The customer services guys point to the number of customers that call in to say they have been sold the wrong product or sent the wrong goods. And meanwhile the accountants are producing reports showing that despite better sales figures, profits are actually down.

OK, it might not be quite that bad in your organisation, but most of you will recognise at least one or two of these problems.

So do these things happen because people simply don’t care? Generally not. They are usually the result of poor communication, disjoints between systems or a failure to make the best use of the information available within the business. The consequences can be far-reaching, ranging from employee frustration through customer dissatisfaction to poor business performance, and even a loss of reputation that can be very difficult to reverse.

Looking on the bright side, there is probably more technology around today to optimise sales, fulfilment and service activities than ever before. Customer relationship management systems can go a long way towards helping organisations join the dots, and are even available now as a hosted service. A wide range of emerging business intelligence tools deal with everything from basic customer segmentation and supplier performance management to full-blown predictive analytics.

Even if you aren’t suffering from the pain we have been discussing, it may have been a while since some of your customer-facing processes have been reviewed and the chances are there will be opportunities to improve the way you handle them. As many markets continue to feel the effects of the economic downturn, it makes good sense to drive better performance across the board.

The case for looking at new business models can also be strong. Instead of seeing the rise of the internet-savvy social-networking customer as a threat, learning to work with changing buying behaviour can be an opportunity. Similarly, advances in electronic trading, such as direct system-to-system integration between customers and suppliers, can seriously enhance efficiency. Despite doubts about trust, security and so on, the potential cannot be ignored.

We would be interested in hearing about your organisation. Is it stuck in the dark ages when it comes to dealing with the customer or the supplier, or are you fully hooked up, tuned in and optimised? Give us your thoughts in the comment area below.

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