Magazine article National Defense

In the Army, Why Can't Soldiers Be Customers?

Magazine article National Defense

In the Army, Why Can't Soldiers Be Customers?

Article excerpt

It is a truism in business that the customer is always right.

But in the peculiar world of military contracting, it is not always clear exactly who the customer is.

By most reasonable criteria, one would presume that the customers of military contractors are the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who defend the nation.

But that is not necessarily so.

It will come as no surprise to military contractors that in the business of defense, the definition of "customer" can be indeed convoluted. The numerous layers of bureaucracies that oversee the design, development and procurement of new weapons have created a system where it is virtually impossible for a company to really focus on the customer.

Suppliers of military equipment may find it "emotionally satisfying" to claim combat soldiers as their ultimate customers, while in fact most companies are organized so that they can satisfy a complex web of buying organizations that may or may not reflect the true needs of combat soldiers, suggests a recent article in the Defense Acquisition University's monthly journal.

Nowhere do companies find it more difficult to concentrate on true customer needs than in the Army procurement system.

In a piece titled, "Customer Focus and Army Procurement: Is It Possible?" industry experts Keith R. Shelton and Drumm McNaughton postulate that the first problem encountered with the Army procurement system is determining who the customer really is.

All defense contractors want to provide products and services to the combat soldier. "Public relations demand this sort of 'user as customer' focus," they write.

The uncomfortable truth in this industry, however, is that the users of Army products--the combat soldiers--do not control any of the actual procurement processes.

Shelton and McNaughton explain--in terminology that would make most people's head spin--why combat soldiers cannot possibly be considered the real customers. Fighting forces are so far removed from the acquisition process that any contractor who pays too much attention to frontline troops is going to fail in business.

The key to success is to develop relationships with each of the "customers" that are in charge of the different phases of a weapon's design, development and procurement. Early in the development cycle, the customers are officers within the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who vet each weapon system to ensure the requirement is valid. Later, the "combat developer" agencies are seen as the customer. …

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