Artem Agabekov is the CEO and founder of Fabrika Okon (which means Window Factory), a Russian company founded in 2004. It is the largest manufacturer and supplier of windows in Moscow, specializing in PVC window, aluminum and wooden window profiles. It also produces windows with climate control for economy residential markets as well as premium housing.
What are the competitive conditions in the window market in Russia?
We work mainly in the B2C segment. We believe that the end client is the most honest client. If you mess-up you know about that immediately. If you have done a good job you will find out about it. So it pays to keep close to your customers and satisfy them.
The market is very competitive. Survival in this market means you must pay attention to meeting customers’ needs well and deliver a high-quality service. The market is declining. It shrunk twice over the last 3 years and the number of producers remained unchanged. The only way to survive is to grow the Lifetime Value of our customers.
What does customer centricity mean for you personally?
We always look at the reasons why a person is doing what he is doing at his work. We cannot change people, we cannot force them to be customer-centric, but we as a company can become visible to such people and proactively search for those who have this customer-centric “servicing gene”. Those people have a deep internal need to be a part of something bigger and we give them the chance to make it happen.
For me the realization of this value starts from the selection of customer-centric people – people who love other people.
I believe it is important to create opportunities where our company gives people a chance to express their best qualities and feel that they belong to something bigger, so that people can be happy serving others.
This is the social function of the business and I believe its main goal. There are 3 types of entrepreneurs: first those that just want to earn money, the second ones have other goals apart from financial, and third there are business people who have missionary goals on the level of the meaning of existence.
These entrepreneurs of the third type are thinking about the ecological footprint that their companies contribute to in their society. That is not only about pollution, but also about emotional harm or benefits that customers feel after their interaction with the company, about what employees think about me, how engaged they are and whether they love what they do.
Your website says: “We believe that the basis of relationship with customers –sincere human relations, and we strive to do everything so that these relationships bring only the warmest emotions.”
Statistics tell us that 70% of people working for companies hate their jobs. We believe in the importance of human relationships and that people in our company work for people. I truly believe my employees can make customers happy.
What characteristics do customer-centric leaders and employees have?
They have a high level of compassion. They value good things that have been done for them and can be grateful. And they feel themselves a part of the world, a natural part of the eco-system. This creates an honest and ecological approach.
How do you transmit this approach to others?
We have created a forum that is called “Love what you do” – 18-minute TED talks. We invite “masters” to these forums, they tell their life stories and inspire others. This is important as most of the people still perceive these stories as something extraordinary.
The forum is international now – recently was in Oslo in English. There are many executives in these forums but it is much harder to find people who are on the front-line serving customers.
A good front-line example I came across recently was a bus conductor. He left the army and started to work as a conductor in a bus. To make his job more interesting, he learned the word “thank you” in 40 different languages. And when he checks the tickets in the bus he says “arigato” (translated as “thank you very much”) to Japanese tourists and gives them a candy. Can you imagine the shock that tourists experience? The bus ride becomes one of the most memorable experiences of the whole trip.
All these people are acting from the position of “giving”.
What do you do as business leader to create this mindset and corporate culture?
My first task is to find the right people, teach them and help them be successful, let them be autonomous and empowered to do the right thing for customers. I give them the chance to make decisions. But as their leader I need to translate customer-centric culture through my own example and inspire people. Our dream is to be the best window company that is making this world better.
The main task of every leader is to manage the values of his or her organization. If you are doing this the rest comes naturally as a consequence.
Do your employees see you as a teacher?
We live in a very interesting time where the speed of change is incredibly high. And when I talk to my employees I more frequently see myself in the role of a student. There is something strange in the fact that the least competent person in the industry can be a successful leader. The digital world is moving so fast that I am not even trying to cope with the pace of technologies.
We can learn a lot from young people. The speed of learning is crucial, and a person who is 24 – 25 years old is more capable to learn, so now it is not about “how big is your experience”, but “how fast can you get new knowledge”.
What are the main difficulties in developing a customer-centric culture?
The main difficulty is that there is no corporate culture as such – there are cultures of different departments, and they depend on specific leaders, because people are always perceiving the company via their direct manager. Therefore, the corporate culture is not homogenous and has different levels in different offices.
We find culture strongly depends on the specific leader. In the eyes of my employees I am not the leader – the leader is their own manager. The challenge is to make the company more unified, to be truly what I am talking about. As we have grown my main task is to make corporate culture more unified, strong and living and flourishing just like we see trees growing in nature.
In an industry which is over-supplied, hyper-competitive, declining and changing in a digital world it is clear that satisfied customers are the key determinant of success. Recruitment of people-centric individuals with a customer-centric “gene” and creation of a unified culture built on strong relationships between staff and with customers is the basis for successful growth in this business. Leadership involves teaching and learning. By creating meaning for each individual around company values and an environment where each can act in the best interests of customers a business can thrive even in the most hostile of business conditions.
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Dr. Linden Brown and his team at MarketCulture in Silicon Valley conducts research on the concept of customer-obsession with the world’s top organizations – Amazon, Google, Apple, Starbucks and many others. He is a renowned Professor who has taught at universities around the world including INSEAD (France), Cranfield (England) and the University of NSW (Australian Graduate School of Management). He has also conducted leadership and skills development programs at many of the world’s great corporations.