The Balanced Scorecard introduced customer metrics into performance management systems. Scorecards feature all manner of wonderful objectives relating to the customer value proposition and customer outcome metrics—for example, market share, account share, acquisition, satisfaction, and retention.
Yet amid all these measures of customer success, some companies lose sight of the ultimate objective: to make a profit from selling products and services. In their zeal to delight customers, these companies actually lose money with them. They become customer-obsessed rather than customer-focused. When the customer says "jump," they ask "how high?" They offer additional product features and services to their customers, but fail to receive prices that cover the costs for these additional features and services. How can companies avoid this situation? By adding a metric that summarizes customer profitability.
Consider the situation faced in the 1990s by one of the nation’s largest distributors of medical and surgical supplies. In five years, sales had more than tripled to nearly $3 billion, yet selling, general, and administrative (SG&A) expenses, thought by many to be a fixed cost, had increased even faster than sales. Despite the tripling in sales, margins had declined by one percentage point and the company had just incurred its first loss in decades. Rather than SG&A costs being fixed or even variable, these costs had become "super-variable."The experience of this company is hardly unique. Companies often capture additional business by offering more services. The list is wide-ranging: product or service customization; small order quantities; special packaging; expedited and just-in-time delivery; substantial pre-sales support from marketing, technical, and sales resources; extra post-sales support for installation, training, warranty, and field service; and liberal payment terms. While all of these services create value and loyalty among customers, none of them come for free. For a differentiated customer intimacy strategy to succeed, the value created by the differentiation—measured by higher margins and higher sales volumes—has to exceed the cost of creating and delivering customized features and services.
Unfortunately, many companies cannot accurately decompose their aggregate marketing, distribution, technical, service, and administrative costs into the cost of serving individual customers. Either they treat all such costs as fixed-period costs and don’t drive them to the customer level, or they use high-level, inaccurate methods, such as allocating a flat percentage of sales revenue to each customer to cover "below-the-line" indirect expenses.
HBS Working Knowledge