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Business Journal
Picture This: Your Customer
Business Journal

Picture This: Your Customer

How one company preached, practiced, and benefited from having employees get to know its customers

Though business is hardly sport, the sporting arena is a great source of metaphor and, occasionally, of useful technique for the business manager. Consider a tool called visualization, which in recent years has been increasingly adopted by athletes to get into a state of charged motivation weeks and months before a contest. Sports psychologists, trainers and athletes rave about visualization's power to focus the mind for a crucial competition.

It can also focus the company. Embedding a powerful and true vision of the customer within a company, and manifesting that vision in all the activities of the company-that is a form of visualization. Here we present a single case study in which visualization has played a critical role in the generation of better service and improved customer perceptions of value delivered.


The customer relationship is a unique blend of sympathy and aggression, of opposing and mutual interests. Many factors prevent suppliers from really "seeing" their customers or intimately understanding customer needs and requirements. These factors include managers who succumb to an "us versus them" mentality, organizational structures hostile to customer needs and short-term pressures that favor expediency over a long-term view. These invisible barriers are tall and sturdy. But seeing beyond or through them is possible when managers think like those athletes who nourish a mental picture of the finish line.

Something akin to visualization is practiced at the Hyland Immuno Division of Baxter Healthcare Corporation. Hyland Immuno is a leader in the field of therapeutic proteins and vaccines. The company sells its hemophilia concentrates to a variety of institutions-hospitals, hemophilia treatment centers, home-care companies-and these therapeutics' lifesaving properties give a strong purpose and meaning to those who work in their manufacture.

Interestingly, in 1999 the level of customer loyalty in Hyland Immuno's U.S. region was more than double that found in most markets Baxter was serving. Why the exceptional performance? Many factors contribute, for loyalty is, Gallup research shows, a complex though measurable amalgam of satisfaction and intentions. But in Hyland Immuno's case, vivid images of the customer enter the consciousness of most employees, fostering deep knowledge of needs, and this customer-facing technique is an entrenched management practice.

"Our philosophy is to make the customer come alive every way we can," says Vice President of Sales Peter O'Malley. "Like many sales organizations, we have success stories that show exceptional effort and dedication. On Christmas Eve a salesman drives through snow to get product to a bleeding patient. Or members of our staff stay up until four in the morning when we receive a new allotment of a scarce product, so the person who needs it can get it the next day.

"These stories only begin to reflect the strength of our commitment. The customer is always present in our minds and in the culture and the feelings of this organization. We talk about customers all the time-not only at national sales or quarterly meetings."

Several years ago Chicago-based Hyland Immuno salesman Jeff Beck made an unorthodox request: He asked a physician at Chicago's Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital if he could shadow him on his rounds. In the course of that day Beck learned the dimensions of hemophilia as never before, and he conceived a startlingly simple but far-reaching plan: He persuaded the hospital to give his colleagues a look through the same window he had peered through on rounds. The hospital agreed, and a small group of Hyland Immuno personnel accompanied a patient through a comprehensive annual checkup that entailed visits to dentists, nutritionists, social workers, orthopedists and hematologists.

Thus was launched a program that has for many years helped employees of all ranks and functions understand the disease and its remedies. "They are all amazed and come away saying, 'I had no idea that so much was involved,'" says Beck. He adds, "It takes a deep and trusting relationship to pull off a program like this. The hemophilia treatment center has to trust you, because you are interacting with its patients. As a result, it is very difficult to get this type of access in most places."

Access is especially gratifying in the aftermath of the HIV crisis that overtook the blood supply in the 1980s. Though hard won, trust has been built by identifying with and championing the causes of patients, nurses, doctors and especially the treatment centers, which are chronically short of support because hemophilia, as a rare chronic disease in the U.S., is brutally expensive. For example, Beck encourages seminar study groups for doctors at one hospital and will often advise other health-care professionals on reimbursement issues that affect their patients.

The emphasis on relating to the customers is not divorced from the company's bottom line. "In a subtle way we don't let the customer take us for granted or forget what we do," Beck observes. But the phrase "being close to the end user" takes on a special meaning when back-office and sales-support call-center workers volunteer to help run summer hemophilia camps for children. Or when, along with the direct sales force, they beat the drum for the fund-raisers of the National Hemophilia Foundation's local chapters and national office.

A customer-facing organization requires a certain mindset. Most important, the organizational divisions and units within the company must contribute to the effect of knowing and recognizing the customer. At Hyland Immuno, employees in finance or customer support who go to hemophilia camps arrive at truths that can be communicated in no other way. Their range of understanding expands, and their motivation and capacity to serve go up dramatically. After 14 years of camp visits by employees, there are several hundred in the organization who share this experience and thereby collectively understand how their work affects the ability of the entire organization to deliver value to customers.

To be sure, the exercise of customer visualization is a lot easier for an organization like Hyland Immuno than for a company selling a less emotionally charged product. But the principle is universal: Just as trees in a forest bend to the prevailing wind, so too should all the members of an organization face the customer. And this will happen only when management takes all possible steps to foster the intellectual and emotional knowledge of the customer-to understand in detail how the product or service is used and the needs it serves or fails to serve.

For the sport analogy to yield results, the picture of the athlete breaking the tape-and the customer waiting there for him-has to be kept firmly and constantly in mind.

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