How to make sure customers influence your business

As they hurled themselves around the race track in some of the fastest cars on the planet, the irony wasn’t lost: Easynet’s customers were literally and figuratively in the driving seat. This was the run-up to a regular strategy meeting to be attended by the group of CIOs and IT directors. The one thing the group had in common – as well as a love of Caterham 7s – was a seat on the Easynet Customer Advisory Board.

Now that we seem to be emerging from the recession, you would be hard pushed to find an organisation that has escaped relatively unscathed, which doesn’t claim its customers are at the heart of its business. In fairness, those companies doing well in this most harsh of financial climates are those which invest in customer service, which listen to their customers and respond swiftly to their demands. Those who can’t do that, fall by the wayside.

Most businesses claim to be customer-centric, but there are of course ways and means of qualifying this. Profit is one obvious measure of customer service success – we like to vote with our feet and we gravitate towards those whose customer service we respect. Digital media means that there are greater opportunities than ever for businesses to temperature check, and manage, their customer service. Customer satisfaction surveys and independent online reviews are useful. But, and I say this without a hint of facetiousness, the best way to find out what your customers think of you is to ask them – and listen to their response. Following this, you need to implement processes so that their feedback can truly influence your organisation.

IT and Telecoms is not an industry known for its focus on customer service, but for the past seven years, Easynet’s business has been shaped by its Customer Advisory Board. A small group of around 12 customers from a diversity of different industries act as strategic consultants, forming their own small network, and friendships, along the way. It’s no exaggeration to say they help drive our business: they provide feedback on processes and systems, on business strategy and on communication.

We speak to them often, email them regularly and have set up a LinkedIn group for them. Every few months we meet them, talk them through the next stage in the Easynet journey, and listen to their response. We make sure we meet them at a neutral venue, and we have an independent moderator who runs structured sessions for us and reports back. A democratic approach has seen them vote for and appoint a chairperson through whom to channel their communications. They are invaluable.

The Customer Advisory Board influences our product development roadmap: the beauty of not being a Neolithic telecoms giant is that we’re agile enough to change our plans, quickly, and if the Board suggests a product that isn’t in our portfolio, we’ll consider a business case to design and deliver it – or look at partnering with someone who does.

One of our Customer Advisory Board members recently talked about how great it would be if we could provide an IT product to help his organisation respond swiftly to changing market conditions. He said that he felt longer lead times for network installations were really restrictive with some telecoms companies making him wait several months before they could join new sites to his corporate network. We briefed our product team, and within months we could offer him Rapid Deployment 4G, a network solution which has meant we can connect new sites to his corporate network within 48 hours and via 4G. Similarly, our innovative Smart Networks group of products were the brainchild of the Customer Advisory Board.

For our customers, the value lies in executive access and consultative services as well as the feeling that they are helping shape our business. They have the chance to network with peers outside their industry sector, and to share their experience in best practice IT. For us, the Customer Advisory Board isn’t there to run our business, and we don’t roll over and let them tickle our tummies, figuratively speaking. It’s about finding the right balance between talking and listening. From the most recent Customer Advisory Board meeting, we took away eleven actions, which included requests for specific product updates and a business strategy briefing. The actions are allocated owners and deadlines to make sure we stick to our side of the bargain. Many of the actions from past sessions have been incorporated into our ongoing Business Effectiveness Programme which drives transformation across our business.

We know many of our customers very well indeed, but the Customer Advisory Board gives us that extra detail, and honest feedback. Critically, it gives us hugely important insight not just into our current strategy and roadmap, but also in terms of customers’ future requirements. According to the Trendsetter Barometer 2012/3 from PwC, only 44% of private companies are ‘very satisfied’ that they have a good understanding of their customers’ needs over the next few years. If you don’t know what your customers are going to want in the near future, how on earth are you going to run your business? Change is a constant, but with the engagement of our CAB we can be sure we have a strong reckoning of what our customers are looking to achieve, and how we can help them get there.

Brian Smith is a consultant at Space2 and is our independent moderator. He says, “I’ve facilitated the CAB in the UK & mainland Europe for over 3 years and they are unique in their format and productive outcomes. The engagement between customers and Easynet means the focus is always on enhancement, whilst being frank and constructive at all times. This combination of engagement and focus on enhancement has led to better alignment, which in turn, has produced new services & changes which have delivered mutual improvements in business performance. Impressive. So customers continue to value the CAB.”

Mike Paglia, Unified Communications Manager at SITA UK and chairperson of Easynet’s CAB says: “I believe that the very existence of the CAB is not only an inspired idea, but that it epitomises the mutual benefits available to clients and suppliers alike. It’s hard to see any downside in such a relationship.” He continues: “As the incoming Chairperson, a privilege for which I am grateful to all concerned, I see my role as one of building upon the outstanding work of all involved on both sides of the equation, as true partners in a common endeavour”.

mike constantineMike Constantine, Solutions Director
Easynet Global Services

Mike is Easynet’s Solutions Director leading the teams responsible for pre and post sales solution engagements with existing and new customers. He has 15 years’ experience advising global enterprises on how to maximise the value of their investments in IT and Telecoms infrastructure and designing optimal managed service solutions to meet the individual businesses requirements. Mike started his career in Bell Labs within Lucent and worked as an engineer for Cisco and Prime Business Solutions before becoming a consultant at Vanco. At Easynet, Mike has had a number of leadership roles across the business within sales, pre-sales and product development

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