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On Being Customer Centric

by David Brock on July 9th, 2010

Customer Centricity is a hot topic these days.  I get on my soapbox on Customer Focus, Customer Experience, How Buying Is Changing, and various aspects of being Customer Centric.  As a result, I get a lot of calls and queries about being Customer Centric.  To tell you the truth, many of them are very disturbing.  They often go something like this (this composite, actually understates what I’ve experienced).

Caller:  My organization has to be more customer centric.

Dave:  Cool, what’s driving this initiative?

Caller:  My boss has told us we have to do this.

Dave:  OK, that’s interesting.  Why does he say that you need to be more customer centric?

Caller:  I don’t know, he just told us to figure it out and to become more customer centric.

Dave:  Hmmm….. What do your customers think about their experience with you?

Caller:  I don’t know, we don’t have the time to talk to them.  Maybe you can do that for us.

Dave:  Well, we can certainly survey your customers and get their views, but part of customer centricity is connecting with your customers better—engaging them—-listening to them.  Do you have any sense of what they are saying?

Caller :  (I start hearing some frustration in his voice)  I understand what you say, but we’re just too busy.  I need to respond to my boss, can you help us?

Dave:  Well, can you tell me what you are looking for?

Caller:  Well we just need to know how to be more customer centric.  Can you tell us what programs we need to put in place and what the investment would be.  It’s important that we measure how we are doing, perhaps you can design a customer centricity dashboard for us?  Could you tell us what others are doing so we can copy them?  Maybe you can give us a short seminar?

I’ll stop here.

On the one hand, I like the calls, they represent great opportunities for us.  On the other hand, I worry about these calls. 

There are many things we do to help organizations understand their customers, better focus on their customers, engage their customers, and the list can go on.  But customer centricity is not a set of programs and initiatives an organization implements.   It is not a new set of metrics.  Customer centricity is a state of mind, it’s a set of values, it’s a culture all focused on serving the customer.

When I look at truly customer centric companies, the programs, initiatives and metrics are not that different from those organizations that are not customer centric.  But what makes them different is how they embed the “voice of the customer” into everything they do.

All companies have new product development processes.  Customer centric companies embed customers into the development—whether it’s customer councils, customer participation in phase reviews, customers participating in the development—the footprints of customers are all over the development process.

All companies have customer problem resolutions processes.  Customer centric companies worry about “what’s best for the customer,” others worry about “what’s best for the company.”  Customer centric companies actually listen to what comes up and change policies, practices, processes to reduce problems.  Others “manage the issue.”

All companies have websites, they all talk about their customers at the web site.  Customer centric companies celebrate their customers at the web site, they talk about their success, they congratulate them.   Their annual reports are filled with stories of customer successes.

Stories about customers abound in customer centric companies.  In meetings, when they talk about customers, they use actual customer names—individuals, companies.  In companies that are not customer centric, they talk about the customer in abstract terms—they call them “the customer,” not Jill Smith at XYZ company.  Sometimes they don’t even talk about the customer, but focus on themselves, their products, their operations.

Customer centric companies sometimes make customers unhappy—as do others.  But customer centric companies always embed a customer perspective in every decision.  Customer centric companies communicate to the customers the rationale behind the decisions, recognizing that some won’t like the decision.

Metrics are important in customer centric companies—just as they are in every organization.  Customer focused metrics are things like:  Sales, profitability, growth, customer share, market share, customer retention, customer acquisition, customer satisfaction, warranty returns, days outstanding/age on receivables, employee satisfaction and the list goes on.  Other organizations measure the same things.

But why aren’t the measures different?  The answer is simple, Customer Centricity is good business!  Let’s just use good business metrics to determine how we are performing.

Companies don’t become customer centric by implementing new programs and initiatives.  Companies don’t become customer centric by implementing new metrics.

Companies become customer centric by embedding the customer perspective—the voice of the customer—into everything they do, every day.  Customer centricity is a set of values, a frame of mind.  Within an organization, it is embodied by a culture focused on listening to the customer, engaging the customer, considering the customer in everything they do.

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  1. I cannot but congratulate you on this post.

    First for its concise illustration how customer centric organizations behave.

    Secondly I also can confirm the misconception many people charged with the responsibility to make an organization more customer centric have . Training programs and dashboards are not the answer.Unfortunately there are many consultants and training companies out there, that would just suggest this as the remedies. But they go for symptoms rather than weeding out the root cause. There is this misconception of leaders that responsibility for change in behavior can be outsourced. This will never work. What can be bought though is help for implementing a change in behavior which is not exactly the same thing as ordering programs and dashboard to help the subordinates to become more customer centric. In most cases this means first getting help for oneself to understand how those wanting their company to become more customer centric have to change their own mindset and behavior. This is the hard part though. It requires admitting to be part of the problem. Without that step, sustainable change will though never happen and all the money put in programs and consultancy for the subordinates is wasted. . .

    • Christian: Merci Beacoup!

      I think you are on right on target with your comments. There is a lot people like you and I can do to help people and organizations understand what it means to be customer centric and help in identifying the behaviors and changes that need to be made. But no program or training can make an organization customer centric. It comes from a mindset and set of values. Once this is internalized, then all the strategies, programs, initiatives, processes and metrics take on a whole new life! They produce different and profound results.

      Thanks, as always for your contributions. Bon Soir! Dave

  2. Oh, such a relief to find that I am not alone in the world. Spot on with the post. I like the phrase empathy, the ability to walk a few miles in your customer’s shoes. I especially like the conversations with prospective clients who rather than trying to become more ‘customer-centric’ are aiming to improve customer experiences with their company, or the good ol’ stand-by= customer service.

    Golden rule= he who has the gold (the customer) makes the rules. (at least they should!)

    I also think that companies that are truly learning organizations are innovative because they listen to their customer’s wants, needs and frustrations.

    • Carole, thanks for the note! Empathy is a good word to describe aspects of customer centricity. I also like the notion around learning organizations–they tend to be much more open, better listeners, more prepared to change and respond. Thanks for adding to the discussion. Regards, Dave

  3. What in the world is a commercial organization that isn’t customer centric?

    Focus on the customer’s complete experience has shifted to high quantity marketing initiatives. This shift in the business culture is very disappointing, but there is hope. Companies that seize the opportunity to out-service their competition will force the competition to jump on the bandwagon.

    David this is an important post that I hope drives more conversation that converts to productive behavior.

    • Gary: Thanks, as always, for the comment. It’s amazing how many companies claim to be customer centric, but give it lip service only. However, as you point out. Those that do, really set themselves apart and win—hopefully, others will catch on and raise their own performance. Thanks for the comment! Regards, Dave

  4. Amen.

    One of the hardest things I find as a consultant is to convey a simple distinction. One the one hand, there are metrics-driven, process-driven, data-driven, performance-driven, planning-driven, objectives=-driven, behaviors-driven, feedback-driven, analysis-driven ways to manage. This is the dominant, default, most common way large companies do business today.

    Unfortunately, the more they focus on these views of the world, I find the less they are capable of absorbing another way of doing business: being mindful, noticing, observing without judging, being curious, long-term oriented, principles-driven,and–if only everyone defined it the way you do–customer-centric.

    You can destroy any one of that second list by attacking it with metrics, objectives, processes, benchmarks, etc. And it’s so easy to do without even noticing.

    Just another away of articulating your main point: it’s the second list that feeds customers, relationships, trust and ultimately business success–not the first way.

    The challenge is to communicate that distinction in a way that increases one’s mindfulness.

    • Charlie, I always love seeing your comments to my posts, they add much deeper insight than the original post!

      As you mention, it seems that we have things backwards, the things in the second list are the drivers of the “tough minded” business stuff, but we attack the issues in reverse. Thanks for the comment!

  5. Your post is right on target. It’s like they’re saying, “We need to get some of that new-fangled customer experience stuff just like our competitor is getting.” And it is an uphill battle every step of the way when “the boss” doesn’t understand what being customer centric really means, doesn’t understand why they need to change their culture and cannot articulate it to the masses.

    I suppose it is more an evolution than a revolution. Only the companies that understand it is really a culture and not just a “program” will end up leading their particular pack.

    • Bill, thanks for joining the discussion. Customer centricity is deeply embedded into the way a company holds it’s customers. Programs du jour to create customer centricity never succeed. Regards, Dave

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