Strategic Customer Service: The Musashi Factor PDF Print E-mail

By Paul Dorrian

O
ne of the greatest thinkers ever on strategy was a Japanese swordsman of the Samurai class, called Shinmen Musashi No Fujiwara No Genshim, or, as he is more popularly known, Miyamoto Musashi. His Book of Five Rings [1] written a few weeks before his death in I645, has become a classic in its field, and is ranked alongside Sun Tzu's The Art of War in terms of its military genius. Like Sun Tzu, Musashi developed his philosophy from the field of warfare. However, most of his thinking resulted from his great achievement as an undefeated swordsman, who experienced individual combat throughout most of his life. It may come as a surprise to many South Africans, that even today, Musashi's writings continue to influence the strategic endeavours of many of Japan's most successful business corporations.

In my last article, I examined the applicability of Sun Tzu's philosophy to customer service, particularly from a strategic perspective. The intention with this sequel is to conduct a similar exercise, but this time via an examination of Musashi's approach, as identified in his Book of Five Rings . Thereafter, I will compare both sets of philosophies, leaving the reader to make up his or her mind as to which one best suits his or her business and/or personality.

In much the same way that I analysed The Art of War , I have identified nine salient points from Musashi's work that I feel are crucial to the formulation and implementation of a strategic service initiative. However, the reader must bear in mind that Musashi was writing during a particularly turbulent period in Japanese history, and so to some, the terminology may appear bizarre by today's standards of social liberalism. Nonetheless, as in the case of Sun Tzu, Miyamoto Musashi's principles are timeless.

The first point that can be identified is that of Studying and Knowing Your Enemy . It never ceases to amaze me how many organisations embark upon a particular strategic direction, or try to develop a customer service initiative without possessing the relevant intelligence on their competitors. Instead, much of their thinking is based on common knowledge, supposition and in some instances, rumour. Before developing a service strategy, it is advisable to know as much as you possibly can about the service being provided by your opposition. That means testing it out and probing for its strengths and weaknesses. More often than not that will take time to complete (although strictly speaking it should be an on going exercise). However, many businesspeople are too impatient, demanding instead, immediacy in their planning, without conducting the painstaking homework on which those plans ought to be based. Current thinking also suggests that customers need to be brought into the process as early as possible. By inviting them to provide you with their definition of customer service, and by assessing the extent to which your competitors are meeting or exceeding that definition, you will be able to better position your service activities in relation to those of your opposition.

Secondly, the good strategist, according to Musashi, will Avoid The Predictable Attacks. This aspect of his thinking demands that you know your own business and service levels so well, that in conjunction with point one mentioned above, you will be able to identify what would appear obvious to your opponent, and therefore avoid it. Too many service improvements are centred on the obvious, for example, delivery, after sales service, reaction to a customer's crisis situation, product returns policy, to name but a few. Not that these are unimportant. To the contrary. The point however is that they are very obvious to spot. Rather, be more creative, and look for the not so obvious that could provide you with a competitive edge. Take the case of the packaging company that discovered that the product development manager of a key FMCG customer, in order to contribute towards his own company's innovativeness, needed to be kept abreast of the latest packaging concepts and designs from around the world. Through its international network, the packaging supplier was able to provide the manager with what he needed, thereby adding value to the product it was selling, and in the process, brought that customer a step closer to loyalty.

Thirdly, Do Not Be Negligent, Even in Trifling Matters. One of the biggest challenges for any company trying to grow and sustain a culture of service, is the perceived demarcation of responsibility that often exists in the minds of many employees. Customer service is frequently seen as the domain of the sales, public relations, marketing or customer service departments. Therefore, many people who work in finance, administration, production or operations, are often not encouraged or trained to make the positive contribution to the firm's service efforts that they could and should make. The result is that many opportunities to impress the customer are lost. Although most management teams acknowledge the importance of each and every employee's contribution to the service effort, implementing such a concept is another matter. A particular customer interaction which may be perceived by some as being of little importance, may actually hold great value in the customer's mind. Take the case of the electronic component manufacturer that sells into the local automobile manufacturing industry. It discovered that the financial manager of a customer company was delighted about the accuracy and timeliness of the invoices it submitted, because that practice contributed to the smooth running of his department. On closer inspection, this supplier discovered that there were other areas, previously regarded as trivial, such as the customer's goods receiving function, where, if service was improved, the total effect would add up to a whole lot of allies amongst customer managers, which in turn created a synergistic influence amongst decision makers.

The fourth point that is evident from Musashi's philosophy is that The Way is in Training. It is the responsibility of a company's management to ensure that its employees are provided with the proper tools to ensure success. Knowledge and skills, which are critical in this regard, are acquired and indeed heightened through proper training. Customer service is no different to any other aspect of a company's makeup. If you want your people to provide top-flight service both internally and externally, then they have to be trained on a regular basis. This reminds me of the story of a promising young basketball player who was recruited from the college to the professional league. On his first day of training, his new coach asked him to shoot baskets from different positions, several hundred times per position. On complaining to his coach that he could do that with his eyes closed, the coach responded by asking ? but can you do it when it really matters most, in the heat of the moment, when perhaps the entire game or even the team's position in the league depends on it?? The same is true in customer service. A once off training session will not guarantee that the customer consistently receives excellent service, enough to lock that customer in and lock the competition out. Customer service principles have to be reinforced regularly before they become internalised. Don't set your employees up for failure by skimping on their training.

The fifth point is Deal With Perception and Not Sight. Perception does indeed equal reality, but in today's hypercompetitive business environment, companies have to continually be giving their customers evidence that they deserve the customer's business. They have to continually prove that they are indeed different and better than their opposition. Positive reinforcement not only assists in building a positive image in the minds of individual customers, but also assists in the development of a positive belief about the organisation and the extent to which it cares about its customers.

My sixth point is, Do Not Engage in Useless Activity. One of the truisms of strategic service planning is that one's customer must benefit from the ideas that form part of any service initiative. Failure to achieve this will end in a potential loss of credibility, with the idea running the risk of been seen as a gimmick. For example, its all very well for a bank to advise its customers that they can relax with a cup of coffee and a biscuit in comfortable surroundings whilst discussing their mortgage requirements with a consultant. However, if those self-same customers don't have time for long chats, or on other occasions have to wait for hours in long queues because too few tellers are available owing to staff cuts, then the whole exercise becomes pointless. From a holistic perspective, the customer does not benefit. Or take the case of British Airways. Its Executive Club informational booklet, which comes to members in a glossy folder and which carries the promise ?Welcome to an easier life with the Executive Club? is sixty four pages long and lists one hundred and ten clauses under its terms and conditions, most of them couched in carefully crafted legalese. Talk about a contradiction in terms! Make it easy, not harder for your customer to do business with you.

The seventh point is that one must Know The Ways of Many Weapons. Just as the ancient Samurai were proficient in a number of weapons, so too must the business organisation which wants to be regarded as service orientated, equip itself and its people with the relevant tools to provide excellent service. That means examining every point at which the customer is touched by your organisation, and ensuring that the employee(s) concerned are fully equipped to deal effectively with the customer at that point. It means building an infrastructure whereby training, empowerment, systems, recruitment and selection and even promotion are tied into the provision of excellent service.

The penultimate point is to Plan Logically and Attack Emotionally. In some ways this is akin to the point I raised in my last article that one of the lessons to be learned from those organisations that have made a name for themselves as a result of their service improvements, is that they strategize on service. However, formulating a service strategy is one thing, implementing it is another. For the latter to be successful, employees have to be brought into the process as early as possible. Securing their support for the initiative and harnessing their belief in what the company is trying to achieve is the responsibility of management. Unfortunately, this is a subject which is beyond the scope of this article. Nonetheless, the service emotion comes from your people as they serve the customer on a daily basis, and it is that emotion which sends a message to the customer as to what kind of organisation you really are.

The last point is Do Not Intend To Wound, But To Kill. This is probably Musashi's most radical point of differentiation from Sun Tzu. Whilst Sun Tzu believed that if one totally destroys an opponent, not only will the entire system suffer, but it will also negatively impact on you in the long run (because you are part of the system), Musashi advocates the destruction of an opponent. This latter point is often at the heart of the corporate bravado I alluded to in my last article. It is perhaps interesting to note that South African Airways has destroyed at least two of its competitors, namely Flightstar and Sun Air. This has lead to a negative impact on the system, by narrowing the domestic customer's choice of airline. Instead of encouraging the domestic airline market to grow, an operator like SAA prefers to be the major player in a market dogged by relatively high prices. This not only prevents many would be travellers from entering the market, but also leads others to disengage from the market on the grounds of affordability. Neither should one forget our business sector that depends on air travel. They too have to bear the brunt of restricted competition, and all the potentially harmful issues that emanate from such a position. These include issues such as biased flight scheduling, fewer flights, higher prices; factors which are detrimental to the efficient running of a business in a world where travel is a vital component to business success. Surely, the destruction of a competitor and the practice of true service orientation are mutually exclusive?

Drawing on the material in this, as well as in my previous article, the following table summarises the main points of the Musashi and the Sun Tzu approaches to strategic thinking. The reader should note that I have tried where possible to list similar points together.

Comparison Between Musashi and Sun Tzu

Miyamoto Musashi

Sun Tzu

1

Study and Know Your Enemy

1

Make Effective Use of Market Information.

2

Avoid The Predictable Attacks

2

Hit Your Competitors Where They Least Expect it.

3

Do Not Be Negligent, Even In Trifling Matters

3

Dominate Your Market Without Destroying it.

4

The Way Is In Training

4

Effective Leadership During Tough Times.

5

Deal With Perception, Not Sight

5

Act With Integrity

6

Do Not Engage In Useless Activity

6

Be United in Purpose

7

Know The Ways of Many Weapons

7

Attack Your Competitor's Support System, Only as a Last Resort.

8

Plan Logically, Attack Emotionally

8

Think Thoroughly, Move Quickly.

9

Do Not Intend To Wound But To Kill

9

Use Service To Master Your Competitor.

You can now make up your own mind. Which do you prefer? Strategy according to Sun Tzu? Or that of Miyamoto Musashi? Maybe, a little of each? Whichever you choose, I am sure that you will have a good guideline for thinking through your entire service initiative. After all, if these guidelines have worked for some of the world's leading companies, I am sure they can also work for you.

Notes.

[1] The title of this book may vary, depending on which translation one uses. For example, Victor Harris has translate the title as ?A Book of Five Rings' whilst Thomas Cleary refers to it as ?A Book of Five Spheres'. See Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings, Translated from the Japanese by Victor Harris, (London: Allison and Busby, 1982)

Reprinted from Dorrian, Paul.Strategic Customer Service: The Musashi Factor, The Future, Volume 1, No 3, 2000