Customer Intimacy: pick your partners, shape your culture, win together

By Fred Wiersema
Price 20.00
Publisher: Harper Collins

The subtitle of this book, Pick your partners, shape your culture, win together, is the main message. The book first appeared in the United States in 1996 and received excellent reviews—Tom Peters said: "A brilliant concept, a brilliant book" and the world’s number one marketing guru, Philip Kotler said: "An outstanding contribution". Wiersema’s first book, The Discipline of the Market Leader (co-authored with M Treacy), was an international best-seller having been on Business Week’s best-seller list for 17 weeks. Customer Intimacy adopts a similar style with Wiersema looking at the practices of some well known companies such as Microsoft, Black & Decker, British Airways, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, SAP, and Young and Rubicam to name but a few.

The author runs his own consultancy Ibex Partners and previously worked for CSC/Index; thus his style and nomenclature will be familiar to other consultants. Like all books written by consultants he has managed to coin a new phrase "customer intimacy".

It is easy to read and you don’t have to dig to find the gold as you do with other books which challenged traditional thinking.

Its central theme is the importance of close customer relationships. It details how companies have profited from getting as close to their customers as possible and outlines how they went about building lasting customer relationships, providing practical examples and anecdotes.

Like Peters, Wiersema runs the risk of naming "good practice" in companies, which no sooner than listed fall from grace. The test of time will reveal how well Wiersema has chosen his examples.

He introduces the concept of customer intimacy, defining it as "a commitment to deliver the best result to each customer", and then attacks present-day theories, namely, consultative selling, customer care, service recovery, recognition and loyalty programmes and micromarketing. He describes them as partial solutions and outlines their weaknesses before going on to instil the virtues of his own solution.

The concept is more an evolution of customer philosophy and reflects the kind of thinking that has appeared over the last year in various journal articles, particularly the work of Dr Donaldson at Strathclyde University who has been preaching customer intimacy for years but without coining the phrase.

The book explores the importance of delivering results "not satisfying, not delighting, but the best possible solution to an individual customer’s need". Sell the benefits not the product, choose your customers and be committed to them is the theme. This is appealing but there is a lack of hard evidence and it is just too anecdotal.

All the best books on customer focus mention Maslow’s Hierarchy and this one is no exception. Just as I was thinking there are inherent dangers on delivery of this idea if taken wrongly, Wiersema gives his own caveat. He writes: "Learn to spot the difference between catering to a true customer need, and accommodating unproductive idiosyncrasies".

The importance of client education is reviewed with some very good examples: Arthur Andersen, Deloitte & Touche, and Price Waterhouse in the context of SAP logo partners.

I liked particularly the trusted advisor approach to dealing with clients and this piece: "The customer isn’t always right: you must help them meet their needs or everyone will suffer".

The concept of supplier as "venture mentor" is well illustrated by the example of COH Corporation’s help is launching both Virgin Cola and J Sainsbury’s Classic Cola. Other classics that stick in my mind are Nurocare;s chief executive officer saying, " I Couldn’t care less whether or not suppliers take me out to dinner. They keep me happy only by keeping my customers happy". A few expense accounts are likely to suffer if this sort of idea catches on.

The remainder of the book outlines "how to do it" and includes: individual solutions, closeness to customer, knowledge-hungry, culture requirements and reinforcement, results focus and a single customer focus for each client. It is a most interesting and rewarding light read, which will stimulate a lot of thought. I can see a lot of new consultancy product stemming from it, so keep a notepad handy while you read.

Reviewed by Gerald Michaluk, managing director of Marketing Management Services

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