From Chapter III

                                                   CUSTOMERS ARE FIRST

Articulating a mission is a most important step in focusing the organization’s priorities and principles. We made reference in chapter 1 to our company’s mission statement and how it makes no bones about where our priorities lie. The mission is brief, so I’ll repeat here in full:

  • Customers are first—We will provide service to ensure the highest level of customer   satisfaction.
  • Quality—To achieve customer satisfaction, the quality of our work must meet the highest standards, those of our customers.
  • Business partnership—By developing a partnership with our customers, we share in the  responsibility for satisfying their business objectives.
  • Ethics—We will conduct business in an ethical, legal, and socially responsible fashion. Our integrity will never be compromised.

It is a validation of an organization’s commitment to a customer focus that there be widespread agreement and support for a core set of beliefs such as these. Intellectually, and emotionally, members of the organization must agree to perform according to what is essentially a compact with their customers. Why are there just four statements of principle—not five or six or some other number— in the mission statement? Are the principles stated in rank order? Why doesn’t the mission statement mention shareholders or employees? What about the organization’s obvious need to make a profit? Differences of opinion, disagreements, and alternate views can be debated, but at the end of the day, everyone must close ranks on the agreed-upon set of values. If not, senior leadership needs to respond decisively. Training sessions, seminars, formal meetings, and ad hoc gatherings all provide an opportunity for the leadership to drive home the organization’s values.

It is a sobering thought, however, that no matter the lengths to which the leadership goes to inculcate the employee population in the organization’s fundamental values, it will frequently have to deal with either lapses in performance or, more egregiously, in commitment. My experience has taught me that while the former can be addressed effectively with additional training, the latter has no possible remedial outcome.

There is no question but that a strong conviction in the core beliefs, individually and collectively, of the mission statement above provides the basis for a customer focus to drive the business. As we said earlier, however, it is adherence to the service ethic that ensures that a customer focus is long lasting and sustainable.

I am often struck, as I reread the mission, not only by the timelessness of the message but by how effectively and succinctly it speaks to what our company is all about. Incidentally, the company’s mission is hard to ignore. The mission statement is printed in employee handbooks and laminated, wallet-sized cards; it is prominently displayed in the boardroom, in the office, on cubicle walls, on desktops, in entrance lobbies, on the company’s Web site, and in marketing brochures.

Jeffrey Abrahams has written a most useful book entitled 101 Mission Statements. Any company considering crafting a mission should consult Mr. Abraham’s book. I note with interest, however, that of the 101 missions stated in the book, only 9 clearly acknowledge their commitment to the customer in their opening statements. Some missions are mystifying (Radioshack Corporation: “Radioshack’s mission is to demystify technology in every neighborhood in America”); some missions are not mission statements at all (Adobe Systems Corporation: “Adobe revolutionizes how the world engages with ideas and information”; or Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream Holdings: “To become the pre-eminent ice cream company in the United States”); and others leave you wondering (Armstrong World Industries: “Simpler, Faster, Better, Together”). Still others let you know where the customer stands. First Horizon National Corporation has six core values. Of these, employees rank first in line, the customer fifth! When you consider that Mr. Abrahams culled the best of the best of the available mission statements, you begin to appreciate the uphill battle we have in putting the customer first.

The service ethic cannot be bought with dollars. That is encouraging to some, not so to others. It is encouraging to the entrepreneurial company—regardless of size, industry, or amount of time in business—whose leadership and culture is adaptable to the rapidly changing mores of our time. It is more distressing, however, to the enterprise that, although endowed with deep pockets, is saddled by a legacy that militates against cultural change. That is too bad. Arnold Toynbee, the great historian, said that civilizations die from suicide and not other causes. The same might be said of corporate cultures.

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