What Does it Mean to Focus on the External Customer?

High performers think strategically about what customers will need in the future, say experts on executive leadership.

By Reynold Lewke and Steve Kelner, Egon Zehnder International
Thu, December 20, 2007

CIO — The C-level competency of external customer focus is the ability to think about serving the customer and building value-added relationships with an external customer or client. It isn't selling.

At low levels of performance, one is willing to help customers by providing them with what you know you have. At moderate levels, the perspective moves from "what does the customer need today" to "what will the customer need next." At higher levels, one becomes proactive in shaping the customer value proposition well beyond the transactional relationship. High performers build complex relationships with customers and, based on their deep knowledge of the customer and marketplace in which they compete, they provide services that customers do not yet know they need. High performers' insights about customers become a source of competitive advantage for both their own company and their customer's business.

Gathering information about the external customer and listening to feedback represents a low level of performance. At a moderate level, you know the customer from the inside, which means you can predict how he might respond to a given offering and you can anticipate future needs that one may address. At the top level is a trusted advisor who is intertwined with the customer's decision-making processes.

Are you ready to focus on customers?

One you understand the requirements of an external customer focus, it's important to consider your organization's predisposition toward customer focus, as well as your own capability to contribute to it. Some questions to consider include:

About the Organization

  • Does the organization allow or encourage external customer contact with the IT organization or similar functions such as finance or operations?
  • Is the IT organization linked in to the external market? To what extent is IT market-driven versus technology-driven?
  • How complex is the business? Does it include a wide variety of products, customers, and business models? Does it seek customer input for new products and services?

About Yourself

  • Do you enjoy reaching out to and connecting with people, especially current or potential customers?
  • Do you understand the drivers of the business and all the different aspects of the market that apply to it, including competitors, history and business priorities?
  • Can you see a situation from others' perspectives, no matter how you may disagree with them?
  • Can you anticipate a customer's emotional reaction—not just a logical one—based on your understanding of that person and his or her business?

Based on the answers to these questions, you can decide how to develop your skills in this area. Developing the competency of external customer focus often requires a significant shift in your thinking and the organization's thinking. That's because traditionally, IT staff has been stuck in the data center and not allowed to spend much time with customers.

Reynold Lewke is Egon Zehnderâ¬"s North American CIO practice leader and can be reached at reynold.lewke@ezi.net. Steve Kelner is global knowledge leader of Egon Zehnderâ¬"s Talent Management and Management Appraisal Practice Group. He can be reached at steve.kelner@ezi.net.

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