Vendors Are Talking: Grocer Is “Not Going to Let Someone Steal My Customer”

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Language, especially spoken language, is very revealing when it comes to someone’s values. This is why corporate executives are subjected to media training to keep them on message while speaking in public – meaning, of course, to appear to say something while not really saying anything.

Sometimes, however, executives defy their training and say what they’re really feeling. Let’s parse this recent statement from Stater Bros. CEO Jack Brown, from an interview as quoted in the Wall Street Journal. The Journal article concerns grocers who had cultivated a premium image, now feeling forced to cut prices to retain customers who are considering trading down to discount grocers:

We are scraping the bottom on prices. I’m not going to let somebody steal my customer, because when this (recession) is all over, I don’t want to go looking for my customer.

Brown’s words are property words. It’s akin to saying: “I’m not going to let someone steal my bike, because when this is all over, I don’t want to go looking for my bike.” Customer = his property. (You can’t get any less VRM than that.)

I’ve been reading the new book “Collaboration” by Morten Hansen, and he writes that executives who successfully collaborate practice what he calls “T-shaped management”: they manage down (their line responsibilities) and across (collaborative projects across the company). This may seem obvious, but, as pointed out in the 2008 book “Senior Leadership Teams,” senior managers are often promoted because of their ability to deliver results from their groups, not for being good at collaboration.

I’m more interested in interactions between companies and customers than within companies. Yet Hansen’s “T-shaped” concept also applies, I think, to succeeding in being a customer-centric company. An executive must understand the needs of the company (the vertical line of the T), and identify with the needs of customers (the horizontal line). She must balance both.

It probably goes without saying that getting angry for people “stealing” your customers, or the inconvenience of “going looking” for them, is focusing completely on the company and not at all on the customer. It’s I-shaped, not T-shaped, practice. And for a grocer, perhaps the ultimate consumer company, it’s reveals some old-school attitudes that won’t work well in the future.

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