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Customer Partnering Excellence

Is your business a Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone? If you are unfamiliar with the term, a self-licking ice cream cone organization's goal is only to perpetuate it's own business.

Well, of course not, you would say. We have customers, we provide them with products and services, and get paid in return. If a company is to last at all, that's what it does. Customer focus is critical.

Ok, so you also want to be Lean, Mean, and a Quality machine. You know, to retain customers, and to impact costs and agility, to improve the bottom line. Therefore, you invest money to have Continuous Improvement, Operational Excellence, Enterprise Excellence, or some other program to hone your operations. And you have this organization tucked away, inside, making things ship shape. Except those initiatives are often missing something. See the previous paragraph.

"37.5% of business executives defined the aim of their process excellence program as to'improve customer satisfaction through quality and efficiency' versus only 23.8% of process professionals"

Well, how do you plan to improve customer satisfaction using Continuous Improvement tools? You could work on the customer experience. You could also work on customer quality. Both are good, and there are other customer interface activities to improve. However there is a way to make a direct contact that customers would really appreciate, and help to drive customer loyalty. And that way is to directly partner with customers to improve the customer's own business. That means Green Belts and Black Belts in the field, hand in hand, working directly with customers.

This concept is nothing new - GE tried it over 15 years ago. Ecolab's Nalco Water division won an award from WestRock for it in 2015. You would think it would be a sure way companies would be seeking to lock in customer loyalty. Yet the message still seems to need to get out.

What are the pros and cons of this kind of improvement program, and what does it take to implement?


  • Customers buy in to solutions when they help to develop them

  • It is an extended way to work side by side with the customer and gain their trust

  • It's a great way to obtain data alongside the customer, to get real facts on your solution benefits that they will believe.

  • It demonstrates to the customer that you are using a disciplined methodology and are willing to teach it to them also.

  • If your customer also has a continuous improvement program, it's a great way to gain alignment with their internal strategy and greatly leverage that for loyalty.

Of course, there are drawbacks - which can be mitigated with the right heads-up.


  • Customer environments and priorities are dynamic. Projects need to be carefully selected that will be able to withstand the winds of change.

  • If customers have their own continuous improvement programs, you will need to deconflict ownership of each project - who gets the Green Belt certification from it?

  • Sales and field personnel have a lot on their hands. A program that is just extra paperwork from their point of view will be rejected by them.

  • With dynamic customer environments and sales workloads, projects may take a long time, longer than a year at times - especially if regulatory or internal approvals are needed. Incentives to shorten might help to bring the time down, or just be a source of additional frustration for Green Belts.

  • If the customer leadership doesn't want it, the customer buyer won't be on board. You need to get engagement at all levels.


Ok, so you want to do this thing. How do you go about it?

  1. You will of course need sponsorship within sales. Get that upfront. In fact, go as high as you can up the executive chain. Visibility at the top is a cornerstone tor success for this, especially long term. If the CEO sees you are adding real value to customers and sales, your Continuous Improvement program will win a key booster.

  2. Partner with training. The training for this program is not exactly the same as traditional Six Sigma type programs. Green Belts need to know how to select the right projects with input from the customer, get their buy-in, and involve them for the long run. If you have existing Continuous Improvement training you tap, it will need to be modified or augmented.

  3. Get an early pilot done and win it. This gets you traction, and you will learn enormously from the experience.

  4. Select a great set of coaches. Use Black Belts for coaching who have different backgrounds that match the different customer solution areas - the Black Belts can then also be used for technical coaching and insight.

  5. Build up or tap a statistical back-office. Sometimes customer problems need heavier artillery to solve than a sales rep Green Belt can provide, especially with very complicated and huge data sets or number of input variables, where a simple regression in Minitab won't cut it.

  6. Build up knowledge sharing - electronically for easier access. Create a taxonomy of projects and solutions, and reuse solutions shamelessly while protecting customer information. These projects can take a long time, reuse will shorten that.

  7. Once you get the program running, and get qualified Green Belts, keep going to get Black Belts. They will be seasoned veterans and can coach the newer cohorts of candidates.

Feel free to comment or reach out with additional lessons you have learned, if you have had similar programs. Especially if you have great wins to share.

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