If You Don’t Lead Your Customers, They Will Lead You Right Out of Business

a true story

I had an engagement with a small technology company several years ago to help them define and implement a growth strategy. One day, shortly after I took on the engagement, I walked into a conversation between the two owners where they were arguing about a customer’s implementation schedule. One owner told the other owner to “just ask the customer what they want”.

I probably did a very “un-consultant” like thing but I said, “No, don’t do that”. Both of the owners stopped their arguing, looked at me with that deer in the headlight look. I told them “look, if you don’t lead your customer and manage their expectations….your customers are going to lead you right out of business.”

The issue here was lack of a fundamental project planning process that established responsibilities and due dates for both the company and the customer. The biggest hurdle I had was the reluctance of the company owners to hold the customer accountable for meeting their project responsibilities…they were afraid they would lose customers. It was a hard sell to convince them that customers really want to be led in their projects and was the owners and project managers responsibility to lead them.

I went on to explain that if a customer was supposed to provide a piece of information by a certain date and they didn’t, don’t just put the project on hold waiting for the customer to respond…take the lead and tell them they’re late and the project will be extended by the number of days they’re late.   The bottom line I said is “if you didn’t hold the customer accountable and the project comes in late, they’ll hold you accountable for the project being late and then you’ll have a problem with a very dissatisfied customer”.

I’m not certain I ever really got a buy-in from the owners but the project managers were excited because they were the ones who were taking the heat from the customers. Despite the reluctance of the owners, we designed and implemented a simple tool to be used with each customer project that defined the tasks to be accomplished, who was accountable for completing them and by when. We engaged the customers in the dialog and set the guidelines each party was expected to adhere to. Once we got the customer’s sign off, the project was a go.

As a result of implementing the idea of leading the customer and holding them accountable, customer projects started getting completed on time, there were fewer customer complaints and the project managers were…I wouldn’t say happy but they were in a better frame of mind because they felt they had a greater degree of control over the successful implementation of their project work.

A final thought…. nothing we implemented for this engagement was new or groundbreaking stuff…but it was to the client and their employees and the experience served as a good reminder for me that it’s not what I know that’s important, it’s finding out what the client doesn’t know and fulfilling that need.


Joe Anderson
Joe Anderson
JOE is a partner at Anderson Performance Partners LLC , a certified woman/veteran-owned business, working with organizations to facilitate problem solving through workforce energy and innovation. He is a retired Marine Officer and a seasoned senior business executive with more than 30 years leadership experience as a senior business executive in several Fortune 500 companies and as a business owner.

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