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A gap has always existed between companies and customers. Top management formulates a brand promise, and through messaging, packaging, sales, product/service delivery and other means, it works to fulfill that promise.

But as author Michael Hinshaw points out in his book Smart Customers, Stupid Companies and in a recent blog post, that gap is no longer tenable. In fact, leaving it open can lead to a weakened and even failed competitive position.  In other words, with apologies to our London tube-riding friends, it’s time to go beyond “minding” the gap and start closing it.

Consider that in today’s world, social media, mobile devices and the always-on Web have filled the company-customer gap with so much noise, opinion and distraction that most brand promises never make the full journey from corporate boardroom to customer ear. Messaging meant to shape customer opinion never makes it past the customer reviews, recommendations, blog posts, price comparisons, mobile apps, etc., that are swirling around the Web.

Because of this and other shifts (empowered buyers, the knowledge economy), Hinshaw and others suggest we are long overdue for a change in management practices that effectively close the company-customer gap.

It all hinges, the new thinking goes, on the employee. As Gary Hamel argues in his book, The Future of Management, the vast majority of enterprises still operate via management models designed for an unskilled labor force manufacturing widgets. Those models are not effective for knowledge workers in a knowledge economy, especially with today’s mandate for innovation, agility and customer centricity. This is particularly true for the workers with direct access to customers, such as sales professionals.

Rather than micro-managing sales professionals and other workers, businesses need to empower them to execute their jobs effectively, and management needs to support the decisions and efforts that they make – at the point of interaction -- in order to deliver a great experience to customers. It is front-line employees such as salespeople, after all, who most directly represent the company and its brand to customers. As Hinshaw argues, your employees are your company.

Another proponent of the employee-first management model is Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL, whose book Employees First, Customers Second calls for a radical shift in top management and employee roles. Rather than putting the CEO at the top of the pyramid, Nayar suggests elevating employees to that top spot. “Value gets created between the employee and the customer,” Nayar says, “and management’s job is to enable innovation at that interface.”  

To me, it’s really all about promise management, a concept that is fully described by thought leader Reg Price in  a book he co-wrote,  Reliability Rules. Businesses are a web of promises, and at a basic level, their success turns not just on the promises they make to customers but also to their employees. How can we hope to make customers feel happy and valued if our employees – and, importantly, sales professionals -- don’t feel that way first? And to make that happen, businesses must shift their attention toward delivering on the promises they make when employees are recruited – you know, all those nice words about the importance of individual contribution and “our employees are our biggest asset.”

Simply put, the promises that companies make to customers are only as good as the ones they make to their employees, because it’s employees who deliver on brand promises to the customers. It is only through employees that companies can hope to speak directly into the customer’s ear when so many other voices are trying to do the same thing. It is only employees who can close the company-customer gap.

As Hinshaw warns, an employee-first management model requires changes in corporate culture, working conditions and compensation. I also believe it requires an investment in systems infrastructure and tools that deliver customer information and insights to all employees throughout the organization.

When I look around, I wonder if the C-suite realizes how outdated their management practices are in light of the clear changes that are right before their eyes. The ability to disrupt exists for those leaders willing to move their enterprises into uncharted territory by embracing and championing change by putting their employees first.

What do you see in your business interactions today – do your employees seem empowered and ready to deliver on brand promises? Please share your insights, opinions and tips with us.