Are you Falling Behind in your Market? Nine Customer-Centric Criteria for Focusing and Prioritizing

To succeed today all aspects of your business and mindshare must be focused on one priority: the customer. Everybody seems to accept this and repeat it like a mantra. And pretty much everyone thinks they have nailed it: they are or in the process of being totally member-focused. Yet I have not yet heard a convincing description of what this means. Why not test it?  How do your priorities, performance criteria and activities measure up? Are they determined on the basis of their direct contribution to customer value? Is your organization or department organized with the objective of providing as much value as possible to your members and other customers?  Do you evaluate employees on the basis of the outcomes they enabled members to achieve? Are you rewarding keen market foresight and the ability to forge relationships with stakeholders and convert their understanding of them into solutions for them and profitable  outcomes for your organization? If not, you may be squandering your capital on activities that do not contribute to customer value and ROI for you, and weakening your ability to stay on top and compete successfully. A good start is to look at every aspect of operations with fresh eyes and from the customer's perspective.

 Associations, like other bureaucratic organizations, have difficulty thinking and prioritizing from the customers' perspective because their model is designed for event production rather than relationships and innovative solutions.  Their focus is on the "inside" -- relentless deadlines, event production and management of complicated processes; policy and governance.  

 When we are immersed in one point of view that is reinforced by those around us, an “inside” logic develops by which things that may appear insane to the outside world can seem eminently logical.  This is especially true in the case of mature and established organizations.  In their book, Race for  Relevance, authors Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers  

 cite numerous examples of inside-out “logic” in associations and the dysfunctional and irrational practices it results in.  A particularly poignant example they bring up is the management of boards.  They point out that, especially in large associations, board management consumes CEOs and takes a disproportionately large percentage of the association’s time and resources. One simple fact struck me in particular: “With four meetings a year,” Coerver and Byers point out, “the average association allocates a month a year to board meeting preparation alone!” (p. 26)

Think of it! This translates into at least 4 months a year (the authors do not include post-meeting work for example). It means that, at a time when successful competitors eliminate anything that encumbers their intense focus on customers, associations are devoting 1/3 of the year to prepare and conduct meetings that, for the most part, revolve around internal and personal agendas and add little or no value to members. Between the management of boards, the preparation for and running of the annual meeting and the multi-layer processes for approval and decision-making, what capital and mindshare do association executives have available to devote to what successful companies do to compete today—obsess about customers and the pursuit of value and innovation?  How far into the future can an industry advance when its focus and priorities place their products and internal processes above the customer?

 I wager that no plan or strategy for a market-driven, growth trajectory has a chance of even getting off the ground until an association re-thinks its basic orientation and business from the customer’s perspective.  

 One way to start the correction is to create criteria that make value to customers the single measure of success and decision-making.   Peter O’Neil, Executive Director of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) eliminated the inside-out, siloed mentality that had rendered AIHA dysfunctional; achieved a major cultural transformation and created a unifying perspective from the outside-in by establishing a sole, new criterion for any type of decision-making: the association’s success in meeting member needs.   Consistent and concrete criteria for decision-making from the customer’s perspective challenge entrenched assumptions and eliminate the need for arguing on the basis of subjective criteria and personal or political agendas. 

Outside-in criteria to create shared focus on the customer

 Below are 10 questions you can apply to determine priorities, allocate time and resources and make decisions on the basis of demand-centered criteria. 


  1. How does this (new program, policy, idea, activity) fit with where our customers are going, and how do we know where they are going?  (Answers to surveys and questionnaires will not do)

  2. How does this fit with the way our customers frame their priorities, define value, and experience problems on a daily basis? 

  3. How exactly is (globalization, unemployment or other broad challenge or trend) experienced by different customers on a practical level?  How and where do they feel its effect? What new issues do they need to address and what types of difficulties do they have to address in the course of a day?

  4. What member problem will this help solve? 

  5. Why is our solution better than what they could find on their own or from other providers?

  6. What value does this have for members?

      1. What specific outcomes will they derive through this and how will we measure them?

      2. Does it allow us to gain a better understanding of members and the market that will directly help us increase value to them?

      3. Does this activity or allocation of resources contribute to any new capabilities that have been competitive advantages for competitors (speed, flexibility, new partnerships, broader access to content etc.? 

  7. Are we helping our members get and retain their own customers?

  8. Is this contributing to our ability to provide value to our members’ customers, suppliers, employees etc. and perhaps expand our pool and categories of customers through them?  .

  9. Is this helping us access valuable relationships and contacts that our members need to meet; do business, exchange value and interact with, in order to succeed?  Are there ways to include them in our forums, communities or member categories and facilitate cross-industry or other types of conversations? 

 Exercise of resource allocation assessment: 

  • Have your team identify the primary activities that take up most of your organization’s time, resources and mindshare in the course of a day and year, and apply the above criteria (or those that best apply) to assess their value to your business goals: getting and keeping customers.

  • Do the same with budget allocations  and priorities

Criteria for success, incentives and rewards

How many of the above criteria are reflected in performance criteria, rewards and your organization’s criteria for success.


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