A quick office survey revealed that no matter how much the boss likes it, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is not exactly everyone’s idea of a great movie.
However, the adventures of Gustave H; a legendary concierge at a famous hotel from the fictional Republic of Zubrowka between the first and second World Wars – provides a lot of great (quirky, yes) insights into what constitutes exceptional customer service.
In the procurement world we often refer to those we serve to please as ‘stakeholders’… but let’s face it, they are our customers and all the old-fashioned principles such as “the customer is always right”apply.
Of course we want to do more than serve – we want to become a trusted advisor. But time and time again, ‘stakeholder engagement’ and the ‘soft skills’ re-appear as the number one skill that CPOs need their team to develop, in order to achieve that ‘trusted advisor’ status. Here are some of my customer service learnings from working with clients, customers, stakeholders and alike during the last two and a half decades.
Know your RFQs from your Ps and Qs
Nothing sells like credibility. If you are going to put yourself forward as an advisor, you need to know about both about the professional service you are offering (procurement) and your customer’s business. Knowing neither or only one or the other, is not going to build enough confidence for your customer to engage with you. You need to ensure you have adequate procurement skills, as well as understand the business you are in to make the grade.
Make sure you get through to the second round
The analogy here to a boxing match is not accidental. I have had some very tough first meetings with my customers. Let’s face it, not everyone always wants procurement’s ‘help’. A large part of our profession’s heritage has been about convincing our stakeholders about the value we can deliver.
From my chilly desk in Pittsburgh over a decade ago, I can still clearly remember being yelled at down the phone from my business unit customers in Iowa and Texas. One CPO screamed, “If you want my team to spend their precious time on some corporate scorekeeping folly, then get your a** down here on a plane and explain it.”
Gustave H provided a light bulb moment for me about these aggressive experiences:
“Rudeness is merely an expression of fear. People fear they won’t get what they want. The most dreadful and unattractive person only needs to be loved, and they will open up like a flower.”
I can’t say that any of my customers have ever “opened up like a flower”, but they have definitely mellowed from their initial opposition. Once you prove you can deliver, they’re putty in your hands. But you have to be resilient and work through this initial push back – get them to the point where they really start to engage and invest in you as a professional who can help them on their journey.
Know what they want; know what they don’t want
When my best practice procurement company, The Faculty, is helping procurement teams to become more customer-focused, we talk about the five false assumptions about customers:
- Customers know exactly what they need
- Customers will tell you what they need without being asked
- If you ask, customers will tell you everything they need
- If customers tell you everything they need, you will understand completely
- Just because you know what your customer needs, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to convince others in your team
Procurious blogger, Jordan Early, shared with me some really interesting research from Deloitte’s Ajit Kambil, who researched how new finance chiefs often undertake listening tours to understand what their key stakeholders want.
He observed that what stakeholders say they want “may not express their entire universe of so-called wants”. For example in our world, a business-unit leader may say he needs better information and support from procurement. But his true want may be “to be really listened to” by the procurement organization; or he may want procurement to “help support the personal initiatives he believes will advance his career.”
Kambil also suggested that knowing what key stakeholders do not want is as important as knowing what they want. When I was working in procurement within a large organisation, I used to present three potential contract award scenarios before we kicked off a sourcing project. This quickly revealed how the customer would react to different award decisions and helped bring on the conversation about what they didn’t want early on in the process. It saved a few (but not all) tears at the end of the project.
Knowing what customers truly do or do not want begins by asking questions. However, it is often difficult for stakeholders to clearly articulate what they do and do not want. This is where you really need to call on all your business experience (and hopefully your supportive boss and/or mentor) to help you truly understand your customers’ needs.
Oh, and then you need to deliver. That’s the easy part… right?