Monday, October 10, 2011

Help the Customer Succeed

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One of the best parts of my job is getting out and visiting my members where they live and work. We are a trade association, so my members own or manage businesses, and most of their businesses are manufacturing companies. And like a lot of manufacturing companies, they operate very close to the margin, using a variety of human and mechanical systems to strip inefficiencies and wasteful practices out of the process of making the product and shipping it to the customer.

I'm always impressed by the complexity of these operations. Just-in-time, Lean, Kaizen--these are all part and parcel of what my members do. But what I find even more fascinating is the role that human beings play in these systems, and the motivational tactics my members employ to focus all of their attention on the goal at hand.

When you take the factory tour, you'll see signs and posters hung in various places; snappy slogans to remind people where to focus their attention. Some are authoritarian, like "Keep this area clear." Others seem more benevolent, recognizing the primacy of the human over the machine, like "Safety is our first priority." Others are empowering, conveying a sense of authority and accountability, like "See something wrong? Fix it."

But the best one I've seen?

"Help the customer succeed."

If you were to boil innovation down to four simple words, I think this is about as close as you can get to getting it right. And I think what I find so appealing about it is that it only works in an environment where everyone, from the plant manager to the sales person to the line worker, knows who the customer is and what it is they're trying to achieve. I'm sure that's not an accurate description of every manufacturing operation, but it probably describes a good many of the most successful ones. I've had personal experiences, walking as a guest through a manufacturing facility, and stopping a person in the middle of some assembly function to hear them describe exactly what they are doing on how it benefits the customer.

Now, think about the world of associations. How many association staffers really know who their customers are and what they need to succeed in their environments? How many could accurately respond if you stopped them in the middle of one of their daily tasks and asked them how what they're doing is benefiting their members?

Over lunch with a colleague the other day I opined that most association professionals, assuming they don't come from the industry or profession their association represents, probably only understand about 10% of their members' environment. They understand their own environment, that of association programs and services, but how those programs and services can be best positioned to solve the challenges their members face--that takes an unusual amount of insight and a willingness to learn what those challenges actually are.

"Help the customer succeed" is more than just a slogan. It is a way of thinking about your association, your role in it, and the things with which you fill your time. Like most directives, simply hanging up a sign is going to change very little. But if you accept the underlying concept--that you must first understand what the member is trying to achieve before you can help them get there--then a great many changes may start happening.

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