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Think about it: what is that you love about your favorite brands? Among other things, great quality and world-class customer service, I’m sure are at the top of the list. The best businesses and organizations in the world, first and foremost, understand their customers better than anyone and design their customer experience to truly delight. For example, Nordstrom is one company known for being customer obsessed.  “The Nordstrom Way to Customer Experience” is a philosophy that is well established and part of every aspect of the company and its workforce.
Another example of world-class customer service is Amazon.  Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, is “customer obsessed” as he would put it.  In a recent letter to employees, Jeff notes:“Customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you.”
Now a question for hundreds of thousands in procurement that work so hard to serve their customers: Would any of your “customers” call you “customer obsessed”?  More typically, the relationship between procurement and “customers” is seen as adversarial.  To be certain, programs bear a lot of responsibility for a sour relationship because they are often guilty of not involving procurement early and engaging them as a partner.  But does procurement bear some of the responsibility as well?  I would suggest yes.
In my conversation with procurement leaders and workforce, I’ve too often noticed an “us vs. them” mentality, one that is focused on complaints rather than one of introspection.  I’ve also notice that the word “customer service” is missing from any mission or purpose statement.   While program and requirements owners often are at fault, I truly believe a cultural shift that emphasizes a world-class customer service mentality can start to change the way procurement and customers work together.
Becoming “customer obsessed” is the fastest path to improving the procurement/customer relationship:  Most procurement departments express the desire to be viewed as a “partner” to programs and customers. The fastest way to get there is by becoming “customer obsessed” and approaching the relationship completely differently.  Yes, this will require a cultural and philosophical shift but one that is important and one that is led by leadership. Fortunately, we have seen some good examples of public sector leaders leading the charge, whether it is in San Diego County with Jack Pellegrino at the helm or it is within the US Department of Homeland Security with Soraya Correa leading the way.
How can others start? Some things will require a broader shift but some things we can all start doing today:
1. Leaders must embrace the philosophy of being “customer centric” like any world-class organization does.  It must become part of the day to day vocabulary as well as part of any action and dialogue.  Rather than pointing fingers, leaders can start by asking their staff, “what could we have done better?” rather than “what did they do wrong?”  Leaders can also do more to ensure “customer orientation” is part of training programs and integrated into all aspects of workforce development.
2.  “Study up” on your customers mission and “business” – Just like you would prepare for an upcoming interview, get to know as much about your customer’s mission and “business” as possible.  Read about their organization, priorities and plans, challenges they face.  Proactively set up a meeting with your customers just to learn.  They will appreciate it!  The best out there do their homework and come prepared to delight.
3.  Ask what you can do better – Just like any personal or professional relationship, improvement starts by first asking yourself “what can I do better?”  For every upcoming project, think about the “homework” you can do to prepare…such as doing market research ahead of time so you can tell your customer about the market or vendors.  Every time an issue arises, meet with your customers and start the dialogue by first stating things you could have improved on.  I guarantee the tenor of the dialogue will change and the customer will also acknowledge things they could have done better.
This is just a start.  If you noted, I intentionally used the term “customer” more than “programs” or “mission”.  Let’s start changing the way we think about our relationships in procurement and make “customer obsession” the new mantra.   We can all start doing that TODAY.  Much more to come on this topic soon.

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