How to Establish a Customer-First-Without-Compromise Strategy

The Offer You Can't Refuse by Steven Van Bellegham

For thought-leader, keynote speaker and customer experience guru Steven Van Bellegham, The Offer You Can’t Refuse (Lanoo Publishers, November 2020) is a story about customer experience and how to create a mindset in your organization of customer first without compromise. “I believe this is probably the most interesting time ever to think about the customer first without compromise, because we live in a world of scarcity, not just scarcity of talent, but almost the scarcity of everything.”

Set in the context of the shortage economy, Van Bellegham describes a situation where customers will think twice on how they spend their disposable income not only between obvious competitors selling similar items, but between completely unrelated spending opportunities. Do we buy eyeglasses or take a trip? It is why, for Van Belleghem, the customer experience has become more important than ever. “In a market that is becoming more competitive, the biggest differentiator will be your customer relationship.”

Van Belleghem’s model to create happy customers includes four strategies: two transactional and two emotional.

1. Quality Products and Good Service at a Fair Price: This is fundamental, and absent quality and service at a good price, there is no customer relationship.

2. Transactional Convenience: Customers have little patience for a business that wastes their time. Organizations that prioritize customer convenience over their competitors may have an advantage, for now. Van Belleghem describes “optimum ease of use as the new minimum,” and predicts, “Paradoxically, the more ease of use improves, the less differentiating it will become.”

Beyond the basic, commoditized transactional strategies described so far, Van Belleghem presents two further strategies that forge an emotional connection with customers: “partner in life” and “save the world.”

3. Partner in Life: How can a business also be a partner in life for their customers? Another way to ask the question is, are you an oxpecker or a fly? Van Belleghem describes the life of a Rhino, which evolved without natural predators and therefore without defensive capabilities like keen eyesight or a superior sense of smell. What the rhino does have is a partner in life—a little bird called an oxpecker. The oxpeckers on the back of the rhino don't just eat the parasites from its back, they also function as an alarm system, warning the rhino when human poachers approach. How does the metaphor apply to business? Van Belleghem explains, “It means that 1. you're always around, but 2. without being intrusive and 3. you bring value at 4. the exact right moment.

This comes with a caveat: “If you only remember ‘always be around,’ you will not be the oxpecker on the back of the rhino, but you will become the fly on the back of the cow. And that my friends is a strategy that I strongly dis-recommend because a fly on the back of the cow is always around, but it's very intrusive and it doesn't add any value.”

What does “partner in life” look like in practice? Van Belleghem offers several examples: Instead of selling cars, be a mobility partner; instead of running a gym, be a lifestyle partner. He describes a business that rents out student housing. “They have an app called Coach that is available 24/7 because students aren't just party animals. A lot of students are lonely. A lot of students are afraid to go to the exams. Sometimes there's a conflict in those students' homes. So, they have a mental health coach available. They also have the upgrade academy where you have the opportunity as a student to follow keynotes, to go through networking events that will help you learn things that you do not learn at the student benches. They want to be more than a landlord. They want to be a partner in the successful start of a career.”

Any organization can look at what they do, see the human side of their customers, and strive to become a partner in life. Ultimately, Van Belleghem says, “If you want your customers to think beyond the transaction, you need to deliver service beyond the transaction. How can you bring value to your customers? Ask yourself why you are in business and ask yourself what kind of extra needs your customers have on top of the things you're doing now. I think that is the first step.”

4. Save the World: Customers (investors, vendors and employees) expect organizations to create social value and take responsibility for their impact on society and the world. For context Van Belleghem says, “We're still having to fight against racism and discrimination. We have geopolitical tensions that are making the world more unstable. In the last 70 years, we have the climate issue that is becoming more and more urgent every single day. And we're still in the biggest healthcare crisis of our generation with the devastating impact on individuals and businesses. This is where we are.” So what are organizations expected to do? “I think for many organizations changing the world is way too high up. The question is this, can you change your world? What kind of potential do you have to make a difference?”

An example of an organization making a difference where they can is the ready-to assemble furniture retailer IKEA. As an antidote to the Black Friday practice of massive discount shopping on the day after American Thanksgiving, IKEA has Buy-Back Friday. Customers bring back IKEA furniture they no longer want, the company compensates them for it, then refurbishes the items to give them a second life. Van Belleghem says, “This makes a lot of sense because it's in line with the business model of IKEA and they involve their customers in this process. They are changing their own world by doing that. They are using their strength to make a difference.”

Organizations that want to save their own world can look to their own strengths, match them to a need, and in partnership with employees and customers endeavor to make an important difference.

Untapped Potential

Where does the energy, inspiration or capacity to change the world come from? From Van Belleghem’s perspective, almost everyone in the world has untapped potential. Addressing executive search, for example, “If you look through the challenges across the industries you serve, the challenge of diversity, there’s still a huge opportunity for the executive search profession to make a difference there on behalf of their clients.”

The Offer You Can’t Refuse presents four dimensions that bring value for the modern customer. “Of course, you need great services. Of course, you need digital convenience, but the real difference can be made by being a partner in life and by adding value to society,” Van Belleghem says. “The first part of this model is about the transactional relationship. The second part is about an emotional relationship. And if you bring it all together in one storyline and one experience, that's when you have an offer you can’t refuse.”