The CFO and customer service

It is not always a natural act for the chief financial officer to have direct contact with customers, except perhaps as part of negotiations or contract discussions. In this environment, customer satisfaction feedback reaching the CFO is indirect at best. Many issues can be lost in translation or their implications not fully appreciated.

This gap of customer contact with the CFO represents one of the most significant lost opportunities for the company. When the CFO listens directly to the voice of the customer, it opens an opportunity to reshape policy and set in motion improvements in business processes and systems that enhance customer experience and satisfaction.

In most circumstances, it is not even necessary to ask the customer about specific types of concerns. In a constructive and open meeting, the burning issues impacting the customer will roll out almost automatically. And they are often significant.

The first critical step for the CFO is simply to get customer meetings on the calendar. It’s easy to do this when there is a sales force or distributors who can set up meetings where you can team up. It’s harder, but not impossible, when the company has many small customers possibly using a direct marketing or telesales business model.

However, even if customers represent a small percentage of sales, they will very often reflect the views and experiences of many other customers. It will generally be clear that the messages repeat from one meeting to the next, forming a consistent picture. The information a CFO can get from these sessions can be exceedingly valuable.

General framework

Establishing a general framework for meeting customers not only gets the most information but sets a constructive tone. And because CFOs don’t regularly show up on a customer’s doorstep, there is a striking opportunity to have a positive impact. The CFO’s presence alone sends a huge message to the customer that the company values its business.

Here are some suggestions for making the most of the CFO/customer meeting:

• Go in with a solid understanding of the customer’s business and history including level of purchases from your firm, payment record, receivable aging, and any known issues or complaints they have raised in the past.

• Explain that you are there because the company values the relationship. You, as CFO, want to establish a solid contact and be of help if you can.

• Consider whether your role puts you in a position to help the customer locate new business opportunities.

• Explore whether your group could be buying the customer’s products and services in order to further cement the relationship.

• Openly ask if there are any problems or issues from the customer’s perspective.

• Listen sincerely and carefully and get as many specifics as you can. Take any feedback without explaining or trying to defend the situation.

• Thank the customer for honesty and commit to following up on any issues. Then follow through.

• If necessary, commit to a follow-up meeting with the customer’s staff to resolve issues in depth.

There is no doubt that CFO and customer meetings — especially if this is a new form of contact — will result in key insights into the way customers perceive your company. But these insights also must lead to action that will improve the process, and consequently the customer experience.

Listening to the voice of the customer is key to improving both the top and bottom lines, and the CFO is in a unique position to capitalize on this opportunity.

Tim Althof of Hampton-based Althof Associates is a co-founder of the Financial Management Association of New Hampshire.