Customer Attrition, 1830’s Medicine, and Entrepreneurship

There are valuable lessons to be learned from the experiences of the American doctors that studied in Paris in the years 1830 to 1850. These doctors were extraordinarily committed to learning from the best medical professionals of their time. Their sense of purpose was so compelling that they were willing to travel over 3,000 miles enduring dangerous high seas and storms, on ships powered only by the wind, and with tremendous uncertainty of shelter and food even after arriving in Le Havre. I recently read David McCullough’s The Greater Journey and was captivated by the level of excitement for learning and the strong commitment to be the best that these American doctors-in-training demonstrated. It caused me to wonder why there seems to be so much lethargy among many of today’s business managers. Many of our service businesses seemed to be trapped in the zone of tolerance and mediocrity.

Among the medical students that travelled to Paris in the 1830’s was a young Henry Bowditch who studied under the famous Dr. Pierre Louis. He had this to say about the exhilaration he and other Americans felt studying medicine with the great Dr. Louis.

” It is an observing and calculating spirit which examines with the utmost exactness the symptoms of disease and weighs the different values of them under different circumstances… then we can find laws from these facts which will regulate disease.”

Let’s apply this sentiment to the field of customer attrition improvement, customer satisfaction, and customer equity. In my experience successful service organizations, including their managers, sales reps and account managers exhibit the following behaviors. First, they actively search for, observe and examine all the facts related to their customers and the critical service incidents that impact their relationships. They tend to make theses observations personal and specific. Speculation is not their “go to” approach. The data collected about their customers is accurate reflecting the customer’s perspective and balanced with the realities of their organization’s internal environment, policies, processes, and behaviors. It is a holistic view of the customer’s dis-ease. The method of observation is calculated to produce a result that helps the patient (customer) get better.

My second observation is that successful leaders assess the level and intensity of customer dis-ease by implementing a contextual lens. They often consider the context of critical incidents within past, present, and future time scenarios. A leader with the right sentiment or spirit for understanding the laws of customer equity will diligently examine the customer’s circumstance and her organization’s capabilities and limitations. She will value facts differently not choosing to ignore that customer priorities change and that her organizational priorities may also change, not always in unison or in the same direction. Customer attrition is a dynamic challenge.

Finally, successfully treating customer attrition, an organizational dis-ease, requires a sense of entrepreneurship that includes a genuine excitement for continuous improvement and renewal in the organization. Improving customer attrition also requires that the entrepreneurial notions of sustainability and economic viability be aligned within all levels of the service organization. For example, installing a price increase may provide certain short-term gains including revenue growth, margin improvement, and personal bonus payouts. The same price increase may also result in higher defense costs, increased customer defection, productivity losses within the service operation, and brand image degradation in the market. There is no doubt that successfully improving customer attrition requires another entrepreneurial skill, systems thinking. Entrepreneurs must think in a cross-functional way no matter the life cycle stage of their business.

Of course, there may be a bit of hyperbole in my comparison of the study of medicine in the 1830’s with the study of customer attrition and equity in 2015. However, I believe that there is no acceptable substitute for excellence no matter the field of study or the century. The philosophy of an “observing and calculating spirit” is not enough to fix any organization’s dis-ease. Your sentiment must be supported with the specific tools, skills, and knowledge not the least of which is an effective diagnostic method. A subject of concern in future articles to be sure!

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