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When Asking Customer Feedback is Insulting

The Rediscovery of the Customer

Companies seem to have (re)discovered the customer. You might think that companies can never forget to focus on the customer. I can tell you, they do. Often customer orientation is just the varnish that hides an internal focus. Instead of focussing on the experience that customers seek, they still focus on efficiency. And if they do focus on customers, too often they apply the old recipes and destroy value.

Here’s an example.

A Story about Customer Feedback

I had to take my car to a garage recently.. The AdBlue was almost gone – yes I still drive a Diesel – and I needed a refill or else the car would stop. So I called a garage I had never been to before , to ask if they would help me on a Saturday Morning. They would. I was delighted.

So, when I was at the reception desk of that garage I noticed signs, informing that the car company might ask for some feedback. And so there were suggestions to answer. A 10 is excellent service. A 9 is OK service. And an 8 is bad service. And the question. Would you recommend the company to others? This is a classical Net Promotor Score approach.

I asked the man behind the desk if he believed in nines and tens. And what’s wrong with an 8?

The man answered. He said that the demands the car company made were high. Anything below 9 is penalised.

How do they penalise you?

They reduce our margins.

I was flabbergasted. Here’s an organisation that steers its performance on metrics that are heavily influenced by the car dealer. The experience of individual customers like me is important. I will leave a brand if service sucks. So getting feedback from customers is not a bad idea.

But not like this.

Destroying Value

This approach destroys the intention. It makes the data useless. The approach to ask for recommendations is questionable in itself, but by doing this there is no point in asking anymore. The bias is enormous. Because who am I to deny someone’s income?

And it changes the relationship the customer has. Whereas the reaction will be lenient, kind and empathic in most cases, it changes the attitude towards the mother company. The brand loses sympathy and identification. Being confronted with the apparent toughness of the company puts the car dealer in the role of the victim and the car company becomes the culprit.

Not only that. It also destroys the intrinsic motivation dealers and their employees have. They do it for the money, or worse, to avoid losing money. They defend themselves against the aggressiveness of the mother company. Instead of being helped by the mother company, they are flagellated.

Feedback is Valuable

Feedback from the customer is valuable. It is a source of improvement, or of confirmation. Every time customers tell their supplier what they feel about the service or product, the company better listens carefully. You can learn a lot. The act of listening might even suffice to maintain or improve the relationship.

This company is not alone in this. As organisations discover that every strategy should start from the customer, they want to show to the world how good they are.

But they apply old approaches. Just like companies put targets on financial parameters, they put targets on customer satisfaction. And these targets are linked to financial incentives. And this changes a lot. People adapt their behaviour to get better results. But that does not mean that the effort is oriented towards improving the customer experience. They put a lot of effort in influencing the scoring behaviour.

Don’t do this. It’s an insult to customers and to employees.

If you want to think about how you can use customer and employee feedback in your strategy, get in touch.

Feedback only works when you follow some rules. Don’t insult customers and employees.

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Clashes at the Top: Handling Tensions in Governance

Tensions at the top of an organization are not rare. Sometimes they are fruitful. But sometimes they are detrimental. They all have to do with power and collaboration. If we would see Governance more as a kind of collaboration rather than a kind of steering, we could solve many of the unproductive tensions.

Sources of Power and Governance

There are different levels and sources of power in an organization.

The primary source of power and influence is ownership. Owners have the ultimate power because they own the company and all its assets. There is no source of power that is more pure than ownership. Owners determine who gets into the board and also in the executive committee. Owners can decide to divest or invest. Owners have the final word on strategy and at the end it’s the owner who decides if the results are sufficient.

Other sources of power come from customers, suppliers and employees. These stakeholders can influence decision-making as long as they have access to scarce resources: knowledge, assets, networks, purchasing power, technology. An organization is dependent on its relevance for all of these stakeholders. But the power of these other stakeholders is usually less present.

Owners delegate their authority to a board of directors, which is often presided by the owner or their representative. The board of directors steers the company strategically and defends the interests of the shareholders. It will monitor performance but will not intervene in operational matters. In practice it’s usually the executive committee that prepares and defines a strategy, which is challenged by the board, or a strategic committee within the board.

The executive committee executes the strategy. It is led by a chief executive officer who reports to the board. Usually the entire executive committee is nominated by the board, or by a nomination committee. Remuneration is determined by the remuneration committee. The remuneration committee is currently under fire because it has – according to employees and shareholders – accepted exuberant salary demands. Check this blog.

The executive committee will appoint people, managers within a structure. Usually the board of directors does not intervene too much in the structure as this is an operational matter, as long as budgets are respected.

In the context of governance there is one simple rule.

The executive committee deals with all operational matters. The board keeps away.

If this rule is not followed, governance is weakened.

Normally there are only few contacts between the board and people within the organization. It’s not easy for a board to grasp what is going on in the company without these direct contacts. But normally they (have to) rely on the reporting by the CEO.

In some organizations the board does not respect this division of responsibilities and bypasses the CEO and go directly to the members of the executive committee or even lower in the organization. They appear in meetings, they appear in corridors, … asking questions about how it is really going. Or they create a multitude of committees to seize more power. Managers are then invited to those committees to explain the plans. The CEO usually is cordially invited to those meetings but can only watch how the board blurs the boundaries between operational and non-operational steering.

In doing so the board undermines the authority of the CEO who becomes a puppet, a master of ceremony.

A Matter of Trust

Tensions between the CEO and the Chairman are normal and to a certain extent even productive. Conflicts are not.

And sometimes for some reason a board goes into conflict with the CEO, questioning everything the CEO does, halting budgets, … They have some levers such as the audit committee, with the internal audit reporting to the board and not to the CEO. The worst that can happen is to have a lack of trust  between the CEO and the board or the chairman.

In some organisations the chairman has no authority either. If both CEO and Chairman have no authority, the question is who has. It’s possible that the power is then distributed across members of the board and members of the executive committee.

If there is no trust, the cooperation becomes difficult or even impossible. Conflict without trust feels iike war. In that case it’s usually the CEO that will leave. There are many reasons for those tensions

  • The board consists of operational people who are unable to keep a distance. They do not understand the difference between governance and executive management.
  • Sometimes members of the executive committee do not know what they can ask to the board. There’s one golden rule to cope with that: all contacts between the executive level and the governance level should run through the CEO. The moment there are multiple channels between governance and executive level there is a risk of uncontrollable contamination.
  • Board members are not familiar with the business of the organization and use their own experience as benchmark. This may annoy the experts in the organization.
  • Board members are responsible for governance and have to protect the interests of the investors. But sometimes they dig in so deep and ask so many detailed questions that the CEO feels sandbagged.
  • Egos can clash.

The Advantages of a Weak CEO

Sometimes a board will nominate a weaker CEO just to be able to get hold of power. This is not in the interest of the organization. It’s also not compliant to the spirit of corporate governance. It is important that the CEO has – within the operational boundaries of their assignment – sufficient flexibility and freedom to act. If the CEO is chained by restricted authority, people usually notice the reluctance to decide, and the inability to commit. For every major decision the CEO has to request permission. If this happens, the CEO will become a shadow in the organization and behaves like the puppet of a ventriloquist.

Sometimes the roles of CEO and Chairman are taken up by one and the same person. This can happen because the CEO has left without succession, or because the ownership does not want to invest in two paid roles.

In general this is not a good idea. The tension and complementarity between a governance and an executive level is a good thing. It distributes power, stimulates dialogue and separates execution and control. If the CEO is the chairman, he has to govern himself.

And sometimes a CEO is too strong for the board to handle. You could ask yourself if this is possible, since the CEO is not the owner and has no direct access to the power derived from ownership. The power of CEOs can come from many sources. It is possible that they have allies in the board, or that the shareholders directly support the CEO. Or maybe the CEO has an exceptional strong backing by the people working in the company. Or maybe the CEO has access to certain assets, information, networks. It is not unusual that investment analysts link the evolution of share prices to the presence of a (strong) CEO. Usually these sources of power are not sustainable but as they are often linked to the reputation of the company, they are valuable.

In terms of good governance it is essential that a CEO has enough authority and that the relationship wth the board is good enough. The board should stick to its role and refrain from operational interference. And also the quality of the relationship between the CEO and the Chairman is vital.

Coexistence and Complementarity

The struggle of power has often to do with ego. If there is a chairman who likes to be in the picture, it is possible that this will cause friction. Or if the chairman and the board would like to decide on strategy and impose it on the the executive committee  and not follow the input of the members of the executive committee and who just know the business better.

It is therefore important that the board is trained in matters related to the purpose, the history and the operations of the company. This will help members of the board to ask the right questions and be able to interpret the answers of the executive committee. And it also avoids that boards only look at financials and short term results.

An interesting example of an organization with an excellent collaboration between a chairman and the CEO was FIAT. Sergio Marchionne, the late CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automotive had an apparently excellent relationship with Chairman John Elkann. Mr Ellkan was only 27 years when the Agnelli family appointed him. Mr Marchionne who joined the company in 2004 has groomed his chairman. If you look at their interactions you could even recognize a fatherly attitude towards Mr Elkann.

It’s clear that it was Mr Marchionne who called the shots. He masterminded the merger of FIAT and Chrysler, and earlier he worked on a merger with General Motors. The relationship between the two was so intense, that analytsts wondered if Mr Elkann would be able to perform now that his second mentor – he was chosen by Gianni Agnelli to become chairman – disappeared.

Such stories are rare.


Whatever the situation, it is clear that both the CEO and the chairman should be more than ceremonial roles. If the balance between the two incumbents is lost, power games arise. This is not in the interest of the organization, its customers and its employees.

A competent, reliable and impactful CEO is one of the key conditions for a sound strategy and for its execution. If this is not so, the company might get in trouble as the focus will lie internally and energy and emotion will be spent on solving a governance crisis.

My advice is to spend enough time to make sure boards and executive committees function well and function well together. The entire organisation will benefit.

If you look at governance as a kind of collaboration of competent and trustworthy people who take on different roles, you might solve issues before they arise.

Stakeholders should look into that. Employees, customers, financial analysts should look carefully at how governance is organised and how it works. Because it is a sound indicator for the quality of decision-making and strategy execution.

The human side of strategy execution is important, often neglected and it starts at the top.
So handling tensions at the top of the organisation is beneficial to all stakeholders.

Issues with trust are never good. But when there are frictions between the governance and the executive level, organizations suffer.

If you want to discuss matters like these in confidence, get in touch.

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Trust is like a tree – 8 ways to build Trust.

Trust is essential

Trust is like a tree. Once axed, it takes a long time to have a new tree. That is why any leader should cherish trust within a team. Without trust coöperation becomes difficult, if not impossible. But sometimes you have to work in a situation where there is no trust because there is no relationship. So how do you do that?

Closing down the Warehouse

I remember the time I was handling the closure of a warehouse. The warehouse was in the Liège area and was heavily unionized. The mission was contradictory. I had to announce the closure of the warehouse but should avoid strikes as it was high season. Moreover the budget for the closure was far too low. I had no relation whatsoever with the people in the warehouse – the day that I announced the closure was only my second visit – so there was no trust. I was the bad man who executed a decision taken a long way from the warehouse.
On top of that I had to work with the unions and had to deal with a corporate management that was very suspicious. I was under heavy surveillance and every move I made was scrutinised. I could not afford to make any mistake, that was clear. So I felt like squeezed between two sides that did not trust me. I can tell you, this was one of the most difficult periods in my professional career. I had to handle the closure, build trust with (furious) unions and manage the relationship with headquarters. But I have learned how to build trust in the process.

8 ways to build Trust

Here’s what you can do when you need to build trust.

  • Map the Landscape

    The first thing you need to do is map the landscape. What’s the mission? What’s the interest? Where are interests in conflict and where’s the common ground? Who are the allies? Who are the adversaries? Who is trustworthy and who isn’t?
    Making this analysis is important because it gives you insights in the dynamics of the process. You might think this is political, and yes you are right. Any political action starts with an analysis of the landscape. But the purpose of this analysis is to find fertile soil to grow trust upon.

  • Be yourself

    This is the eternal advice. At all cost you need to stay yourself. If you start playing a role, you will end up in a web of lies. You are you. This means that you should make personal comments, laugh at a joke someone tells you, be sincere. Don’t try to be the person you are not.

  • Be present and available

    Presence is important. If people see you regularly you become part of the scenery. They get used to you. Being together with the people you want to build a trusting relationship with is almost the physical basis for trust. Being present generates ample opportunities to talk, to help, to show you care. Being present generates opportunities for informal conversation, which is more effective than a formal meeting, as far as building trust is concerned.

  • Show interest

    Show that you are interested in what the others think, feel. Ask questions. Be empathic. Acknowledge understanding. Be open to what others think and feel. If people see that you genuinely care, they open up. Don’t manipulate. Don’t act as if you care. People will sense that.

  • Be transparent

    Some times it might be difficult to be transparent. Maybe you did not have a mandate to tell everything. But you need to negotiate that mandate. Nobody can expect you to tell lies. Lying by omission can be attractive, but if you apply the salami technique to show information slice by slice, you might end up with a backdraft. It’s usually better to present the sour apple in one piece at the start of the process. Remember that you always have a choice to be transparent or not.

  • Be consistent

    Consistency is a major source of trust. Do not change opinions all the time. Do what you say. Keep promises. And if you change plans, talk about it. Explain why. Consistency is not limited to the plan. It includes consistent behaviour and being reliable.

  •  Be vulnerable

    When it’s appropriate, be vulnerable. If you do not know something, acknowledge that. If the counterpart offers you new information, accept that. You cannot know everything. Don’t be unreasonable about information that does not fit your scheme. Show others that you are willing to accept other opinions and be open to them. If you have made a mistake, admit it. Change your plan if that is useful. Being right is not the purpose, doing the right thing is. Don’t worry about losing your face. It’s a source of personality building. Your pride is not that important.

  • Be fair

    Fairness is one of the most difficult things in a difficult situation. However this is the test of the pudding. Are you willing to be fair even when this means that you deviate from a predefined course? Are you willing to be fair even when this means you need to stand up against others who care less about fairness?

Take the Heat

The closure of the plant started under bad circumstances. Belgian and European law requires you to start a process of information before the decision is taken. So you have to first announce your intention to close operations, after which a period of social bargaining starts. This should allow the unions to come up with alternative options, ask questions, make suggestions. Very often this is a formal and therefore cruel requirement that has no relation with economic or social considerations.
I got yelled at and called names in French I had never heard before. So it was understandable that people were angry. If you understand the emotion, and you acknowledge this understanding, you are half way. It does not mean that you have to change the decision because of the emotions. It only means that you relate to them, that you’re human.
At the end of the process we reached a deal, with only half a day of strike. The process took longer than normal because of this request to avoid strikes but in terms of time and budget the closure went well. On the human side, I experienced a process that started in turmoil but ended in mutual appreciation. Local union representatives had sent away their regional representatives because they found that insulting me was not helping at all. We found an understanding and there was mutual appreciation.
Leaders who keep a distance from the heat will never experience this process. But they will never reach a level of trust. They will be seen as indifferent, impersonal, untrustworthy. I believe you can accelerate the process of creating trust, but it’s only by being human that you can do that. So take the heat.

Redezeit on Trust

Join us on October 10 2018 at 7pm to discuss the issue of Trust in Digital Times.


Navigating Continuous Change – Report of an LBS Workshop

During the reunion of the executive education alumni of the London Business School I had the pleasure to co-moderate one of the workshops. The topic was how to navigate continuous change. About 20 international executives exchanged their experiences. Here are the key learnings.

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Executive Pay on the Rise in 2017. The Role of HR.

From a legal point of view, there is no problem with high executive pay. But companies should look at the adverse impact on employee motivation and on leadership reputation. The perceived injustice of exuberant executive pay also harms your organisation. It might decredibilize its leadership and hamper the execution of the strategy.

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Merger. When 2 Cultures Come Together

A merger is the integration of two organizations into one. The reasons to do so are numerous: economies of scale, industry capacity reduction, growth, acquisition of know-how … But the data are impressively dramatic. Most mergers fail and destroy value. One of the main reasons is because there is not enough focus on cultural compatibility.Read More

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