Be a Student of Your Customer

by Steve Anderson

Last May I wrote about the importance of understanding your customer’s organization in a potential service relationship, i.e., how will your customer interface with your organization as you perform work? It’s not only important to get this right to be an effective contractor, it’s essential to winning the work initially.

Clearly, you must keep your customer’s interest in mind when you outline your plan to manage the work and reflect that in your proposal’s management section. It’s equally important to know how you will align your resources to facilitate your customer’s management of you once under contract. The more the customer can see congruence between your management approach and theirs, the lower their perceived risk will be in selecting you to perform the work. In a competitive environment, differences in perceived management risk among competitors may be the difference between winning and losing.

Naturally you want to learn everything possible about your customer: their organizational model; key personnel; strengths and weaknesses; likes, dislikes, preferences, etc. You may be tempted to glean some of this insight by reviewing the customer’s organization chart, reading strategic plans, etc. However, that is seldom enough.

Think of your own business’ organization chart and published plans and now consider how much more an effective partner would truly need to understand about your operation. When it comes to your customer, you will want to dive deep below the surface to gauge how they see themselves and how they get their work done.

One of my favorite tools for understanding organizations is Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization, © 2006, Sage Publications. Gareth proposes viewing organizations through various metaphors as a means of understanding how organizations are influenced by the work, the internal and external environment, their personnel, and their leadership.

Morgan’s metaphors include viewing organizations as various familiar forms to better understand how they function. Simply put, organizations that are like Machines are bureaucratic in nature; Organisms are adaptive; Brains process information; among several examples. These comparisons are helpful in revealing both the good and the bad of organizations, as well as exploring how they interact internally and with the world at large.

Each of these metaphors can be an enlightening window on why various organizational types respond to stimuli in the way that they do. Coupled with your customer research, they can be predictors of what to expect from your customer.

There are, of course, other organizational behavioral models. McGregor, Weisbord, Senge, Covey, Peters, Demming, and others have contributed greatly to what we know about how and why we do what we do at work. In the context of winning your next competition, select the model(s) that provides you the greatest degree of insight into your customer and directs you on how to best interact with them.

Then, use that insight to guide your winning management proposal.

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