An Unconventional Take on Customer-Centric Business

Some folks are generous. Some of these generous folks think of me as thought leader in the Customer space. As a result when other folks are doing research in customer-centricity, customer strategy, customer experience they are told to reach out and ask me questions.  Such questioning took place recently on the subject matter of customer-centricity.

What is Customer-Centricity? And How Does An Organisation Become Customer-Centric?

The questioner wanted to pick my brains on the following:

  • Definition: what is customer-centricity?
  • Obstacles: what stands in the way of an organisation being customer-centric; and
  • Route-Map: what path an organisation need to take and traverse in order to become customer-centric.

It occurred to me that what the questioner was looking for was a template. Better still a mould. A mould in which you pour in an organisation and out comes a customer-centric organisation.  Or a template, if applied precisely, to an organisation, any organisation, out comes a customer-centric organisation.

Let’s imagine that a customer-centricity wizard conjured up such a template / mould.  Surely, this template would be sold to any and all with the desire and means to purchase it.  What would be the result using this template?  Does it take that much imagination to see that each and every organisation would end up the same. Exactly the same: each would have the exact same understanding of what it is to be customer-centric: channels, processes, practices, structures…. And if this is the case then what would differentiate one of these organisations from another?

I can see the lure of ready made answers to complex challenges, opportunities, and problems.  With ready made answers and templates one does not need to think. One does not need to investigate matters including generating original meaningful insight into customers. Or the lives of employees, and that which is occurring at the coal face where the organisation and the customer meet. One does not have to put oneself in a vulnerable position of trying stuff out and accepting / embracing failure: the situation not turning out as you had hoped / planned. One does not need to be patient and iterate one’s way to customer-centricity.  And of course when one arrives at customer-centricity then one can put one’s feet up, sink into habit, and live on automatic pilot.  Yes, I get the lure.  I can see the lure of instant get rich schemes. Or no effort instant weight loss regimes.  And what do they have in common: they all disappoint. Now compare that with the folks who are serious about dealing with their alcohol addiction and show up at Alcoholics Anonymous.

Might Customer-Centricity Come In Flavours? And Be Context Sensitive?

Consider this. In the world of Apple, customer-centricity means inventing products that folks want to own because they show up as so desirable (so cool), useful (they enrich the lives of customers in some manner), and because they are so intuitive (easy) to use. In the world of Zappos, customer-centricity means providing the world’s best customer service – where it is perfectly ok for a Zappos employee to spend hours on a phone with a customer.  In the world of Amazon, customer-centricity means making it so easy for customers to buy a range of goods from Amazon at a ‘value for money’ price, and receive the goods the next day or so – no travel, no hassle.  In the world of John Lewis, customer-centricity means providing great products and calling forth great service from the folks that work in the business by ensuring that these folks share in the success of the business.

If you get what I am getting at, then you will get my advice. What advice?  Do not look for definitions of customer-centricity. Do not look for a template / mould / recipe to turn your organisation into a customer-centric organisation. Instead, live the question!     Grapple with the question!

What Is The Question And Challenge That Lies At The Heart of Customer-Centricity?

This question: In which way/s do we wish to simplify-enrich the lives of the customers we have chosen to do business with?  

To answer this question well it is necessary to understand the lives (as lived, experienced) of your chosen customers.  Generating this kind of understanding – rich understanding – is a challenge.  Why? This understanding can only come about if you get close to your customers. How close?  You have to enter their lives: to experience the world as they experience the world.  Whilst this sound challenging it may not necessarily be as challenging as it sounds provided you are in touch with your own experience of living – your own humanity. Apple’s enter into smartphones had a lot to do with Job’s frustration with using the mobile phones on the market. Zappos way of doing business is a manifestation of who Tony Hsieh is as a human being: how he feels about people and relationships between people, how he wishes to be treated by folks.

Summing up

I say that to show up as customer-centric you have to give up looking for ready-made answers and grapple with the question. The only question that matters when you are considering customer-centricity is this one: for our chosen base of customers, what do we need to do to simplify-enrich the lives of our customers, and are we doing that which is necessary?  Imagine what becomes possible if all the folks in your leadership are living this question. Imagine what becomes possible if all of the Tops and Middles are living this question. Now imagine if all the folks in your organisation are living this question.

I also say that you have to live this question every day. Why?  Because life is not life but living – which is to say it is a process. Process is flow. Which is to say that all is change. What constituted customer-centricity last month may not constitute customer-centricity today.  Which is to say that customer-centricity is not a thing. Nor a destination.  It is perception: how your customers perceive you. It is also context sensitive.  Think Tesco.  Once Tesco was considered the poster child for customer-centric business: the exemplar.  The context changed with the financial crisis, the recession, and the UK’s austerity regime.  The folks at Tesco did not change their ways.  Yet folks at Waitress who served upmarket affluent customers did notice the change of context. And in so doing they made a number of changes including the introduction of the value range.

I invite you to consider that none of the existing methods, tools, techniques, formulas, recipes, templates will help you in the challenge and opportunity of customer-centricity. The opposite may be the case. Why so?  The nature of our educational process is such that we are addicted to forcing the world to fit our moulds (theories, approaches, methods, tools, techniques).  That is how education makes us stupid.  Yet, the process of living requires us to show up with a sensitivity to that which is occurring and respond to this intelligently. This means coming up with original ways.  Consider that the folks at Zappos went against conventional advice. Consider that Steve Jobs also did the same. Do you remember what folks said about Apple’s move into smartphones, or the format of their stores?  Consider that The John Lewis Partnership is one of the few large organisation that is employee owned (through a trust).  Again, going against conventional practice.

Enough for today, I thank you for your listening.  If you disagree with that which I have shared then I ask you to share your thoughts by commenting.

Timpson: Business Success Through Humanistic Leadership

Allow me to introduce you to a little know business gem: Timpson. It is a family business operating 1000+ stores, annual turnover in the region of £200m, and annual profits of £10m+. Today, this organisation (and its leadership) is on my mind again. Why? Because of what I saw and read on LinkedIn.

This is the photo that captured my attention:

Timpson Free Outfit Cleaning

The last time I looked there were 240+ likes. Here are some of the comments that caught my attention:

  1. “Leadership at its best”;
  2. “Hats off to CEO James Timpson”;
  3. “Very thoughtful and caring”;
  4. “Pay it forward”;
  5. “Brilliant. More selfless acts needed”;
  6. “If another company did this it would probably seem like a publicity stunt, but Timson’s record speaks for itself..”; and
  7. “How many Advocates and how much good feeling does that create for Timpsons who are already an exceptionally socially responsible company…Great win win!”

Why did these comments catch my attention? Because these comments provider a pointer towards the following:

  1. The shape-look-feel-character of humanistic leadership: authentic as opposed to faking it in order to manipulate others (publicity stunt); thoughtful and caring as opposed to thoughtlessness and indifference to our shared humanity – where humanity is hidden under the labels of customer, employee, supplier; and selflessness leading to paying it forward as recognition of one’s good fortune and shared humanity as opposed to unlimited greed dressed up in fine sounding words like maximising revenues and profits.
  2. The impact human-centred leaders make on us: we tend to think of this kind of leadership as “leadership at its best”; and those who exercise this kind of leadership call forth respect – when we are authentic we take our hats off only to those whom we genuinely admire, esteem, respect in terms of their virtues and/or skills.

  3. The benefits that tend to show up as result of exercising humanistic leadership: the good feelingthat this kind of leadership calls forth in just about everyone except sociopaths and those professionally trained as economists and MBAs; and the advocacy-loyalty that is automatically brought into play as a result of evoking this good feeling.

I am clear that we (those of us living in the UK and USA) live in transactional, individualistic, non-humanistic, competitive cultures. So those of us, who are ‘smart’, are likely to be tempted to fake humanistic leadership to get the benefits (respect, status, increased profits, wealth) without paying the necessary ‘price’. So here’s the paradox. The exercise of humanistic leadership does generate advocacy, loyalty, revenues, and higher profits. However, this is not the case when humanistic leadership is exercised for the sake of harvesting these benefits. Why? Because, one can only fake it so long before true intentions leak out and are detected by those who are being manipulated.

Is Timpson faking it? Is this offer of free outfit cleaning for the unemployed merely a publicity stunt? This is what Justin Parkinson of the BBC says on this blogpost:

The problem is that getting suits dry cleaned usually costs in the vicinity of £10, which can be prohibitive for unemployed people looking to return to work.

The offer, in place since 1 January, has been taken up by hundreds of people, Timpson chief executive James Timpson says. “When people are going for interview it’s important to look and feel smart and getting their suit dry cleaned is part of that,” he adds. “It makes people more confident and gives them that 2% extra chance of getting a job. We just thought it was a really good idea.”

In my experience, one of the core challenges of taking a humanistic approach to doing business (including the exercise of human-centred leadership) is that we have a dim view of human nature. Our actions show that we are convinced that if we appear ‘soft’ then we will be taken. So how has this offer turned out for Timpson? Here is more from that BBC blog:

“We just trust customers,” says Timpson. “We had one lady who came in with a cocktail dress and we told her to hold on. But that’s the only instance of a customer taking advantage.”

What is going on here? How to make sense of this? It occurs to me that somewhere deep down in us, our human decency is intact. Put differently, for most of us, there is something deep in our being that makes us think twice and usually prevents us from taking advantage of those who show concern for us, our fellow human beings, and our shared humanity. Where we transgress and do take advantage of the kindness of others, guilt comes into play. That is the price we pay for not honouring the best of our humanity.

Now you may be wondering what this has to do with Customer. I say take a look at what has been done in the name of customer service. Take a look at CRM. Take a look at customer loyalty programmes. Take a look at Customer Experience. Take a look at all that has happened and all the money-effort that has been expended in the name of the Customer. Now ask yourself how it is that despite all of this customer loyalty and employee engagement are stagnant – at best. There is your answer: humanistic leadership (and management practices) are the access to calling forth the good feeling that in turn leads to engagement-loyalty-advocacy: from your people, from your suppliers/partners, and from your customers.

If you are interested in learning more about Timpson then check out this piece that I wrote some time ago as it continues to be relevant and instructive: Timpson: Shifting-Transforming Culture Through Language and Practices.

Note: At the invitation of Bob Thompson, I write the Human-Centred Leadership column on CustomerThink.com. This conversation was published there last month.

You may have noticed I have not been conversing much recently here on this Blog. I have been dealing with back pain for the last six weeks. This has limited by ability to do that which it takes to create-share conversations. I hope to back in action soon.  If you missed me then I thank you for your patience. If you didn’t, excellent: now you know that you are wasting your time-life listening to me, please go and do something that lights you up!

Taking A Deeper Look At Customer-Centricity: Is It All Goodness?

Today, let’s take a deeper look at customer-centricity. Why? To get a better appreciation of what this term signifies. And importantly what it does not signify.  How best to go about this? Allow me to share a personal story or two with you and lets see what is unconcealed.

My Father Is Centred On Me

Up to the age of 5 (or so) nobody was centred upon me. As a result I lived a life that showed up as free – I pretty much got to do what I wanted to do for the whole day; my father was living in a different country for most of the time and my mother was too busy working the farm to keep a close eye on me.

Everything changed shortly after my fifth birthday. I found myself living in the UK, living an indoor life in a city (rather than an outdoor life in the countryside) and under the careful gaze of both my mother and father.  This is where life became interesting. Why? Because my father became maz-centred: he centred his attention on me.  What did this look like?

My father planned and dictated pretty much every day of my life. So when I got back from school, I was fed by my mother then marched upstairs to my bedroom to study. And not let out until the studying was done. Homework from school was not enough. My father got together with his more educated friends and gave me extra homework.  Each night there would be test.  If I did not pass the test there were unpleasant consequences.  Further, I had to watch the six o’clock news and the nine o’clock news. And I had to translate for my father. I remember that one night I forgot to inform him that the Egyptian army had been decimated by the Israeli army. The next day he found out from his friends and I got punished.

This level of maz-centricity was not enough for my father. Some weekends he would arrange for my cousin who was several years older to come over. And then he would pose questions to us both.  If I did not surpass my cousin – who was and is clever – I got punished.  To avoid the punishment I studied a lot in the evenings and even at the weekends.

As I excelled in school my fathers maz-centricity broadened to include Islam. Now I come home to school, was fed by my mother, did some homework, then had to go the mosque and study there for 2-3 hours, then return home and complete my homework.

When it came to choosing which subjects I was going to study at school for my O’levels. My father chose the subjects for example overriding my preference for Physics with his choice of biology. Why? My father was totally centred on me. Why? My father was clear that I was his passport to status (standing in the community) and money. Therefore, he was clear and determined that I was to become a doctor – at least a doctor, more likely a surgeon.

What has been unconcealed here?  My father centred his resources (time, money) on me in order to serve his needs – for status, for wealth.

I Centre On My Children

I remember coming home very late one evening – around about 11pm. It had been a hard day at work. Opening the door, I found my son (who was around 3 at the time) rushing towards me with big eyes, big smile, and open arms. As I picked him up the following thought occurred: “My son loves me just as I am. All he asks is that I be here and spend time with him. Whereas at work, I am only as good as the last project. And my utilisation rate.”  I also realised that I had been prioritising work over my son!  I made a choice. I chose to stop climbing the ladder at a Top 5 management consultancy – work less, spend more time with my son.

When Rohan (eldest son) was around 4 years old I made the decision to put him into a private school: a Montessori School. Many people advised me not do so. Their argument, private school is costly. And I could not put Rohan into Montessori School without, later, putting both Rohan and Marco (second eldest son) into Montessori School. And then later a third child; my wife and I had planned to have three to four children.

After some consideration, I chose to walk down this path – of putting Rohan into Montessori School and keeping there at least until the age of eleven. And likewise for the other children – born and unborn. Why did I make this choice? I noticed that Rohan was an unusual child: bright, risk taking, inquisitive, creative yet struggling to read or put a sentence together. Later it turned out that Rohan has the gifts and constraints that go with being Dyslexic. Noticing, what was so, I was convinced that Rohan would suffer in traditional school where the classroom size is 30+. And the work if focussed on reading and writing.  Montessori School offers a much broader curriculum and importantly uses all five sense – not just sight and sound.

When I was not working away from home, I spent some time every evening with each of my children. If nothing else I would go and lie in bed with each of them for 10 – 20 minutes. And I would ask them the same questions. How are you feeling? What was good about your day? What was not good about your day? Is there anything else that you want to tell Papa?  I would give each of them a hug and tell each of “I love you and I am so proud of you.” That was the truth and continues to be the truth.

It occurs to me that I was also centred on my children. Ask my wife and she will tell you that I continue to be centred on my children even though Rohan is nearly twenty, Marco is eighteen, and Clea is fourteen.  The question is, why have I been and continue to be centred on my children?

My answer: to give these children the best start in life. What kind of start is that? One where they are encouraged and taught to think for themselves. One where they are encouraged and taught to stand up for themselves. One where they are encouraged to be leaders not just followers. One where they are encouraged and taught to consider and care for others. One where they are encouraged to take risks, explore, create, challenge rather then merely follow instructions and execute…..  My desired outcomes for my children have been and continue to be:

  • each child knows and values his gift/s;
  • each child has strong self-esteem (sense of inner worth) and strong self-confidence (way of being in the world and handling that which shows up in the world); and
  • each child values others as fellow human beings worthy of respect-consideration and naturally gets on well with others without sacrificing his/her core values and aspirations.

Summing Up

My father centred his time-effort-resources on me from the age of five until I broke away at the age of eighteen; I had been planning to break away from about the age of fourteen.

I have centred my time-effort-money on my children since 1998-1999.  All three of my children are still living with me. None of them has any intention of moving out any time soon even though the boys are both employed.

What is the difference?  My father was centred on me in order to attain his desired outcomes and at no time considered what I wanted for my life. What mattered was my father maximising his ROI in me. I was his vehicle for status, respectability, wealth…. I have been centred on my children too – throughout the wellbeing of my children has been and continues to be my concern and my commitment.

Imagine a hunter has his attention and rifle centred on your head right now.  He is about to take that shot. How are you left feeling?  Does the fact that this hunter is centred on you mean that he has your wellbeing at the centre of his concern?  You are not that stupid, right?  No you are not, which is why you would prefer it if this hunter centred his attention and rifle on someone/thing else – just not you or your loved ones.

So why is it that so many folks go stupid when it comes to business and the use of the term customer-centricity? Why is it that folks talk about customer-centricity as good thing implying that it is good for the company and it’s customers.  It may be good for the company, it is highly unlikely to be good for the customers. And I get that there are some companies which are exceptions.

Remember:

  1. Customer-centricity is merely a set of people and practices that constitute a powerful tool;
  2. What matters is what this tool will be used for the sake of (purpose/motive);

  3. What this tool is used for will be determined by the person/s who are using this tool;

  4. Therefore, take a good-detailed look at the person/dept/organisation which is using that tool.  Look at how these folks ‘feed and breed’ and you will have a good insight into what they will be using the tool for.

  5. Whatever you do don’t listen to the words, remember the Greek legends -in particular the Sirens with their seductive music and and voices.

And finally, from my own experience I have never found anyone to be as customer-centric as a salesman who needs to make his quota. Or a direct marketers keen to get the max revenue-profits from their direct marketing efforts.

What Has Motive Got To Do With Customer Loyalty?

More than once and by more than one ‘customer guru’ I have been accused of bringing moral considerations into an arena where moral considerations do not belong. Which arena is that? The business arena. Many folks are convinced that what matters in business is the right strategy (plotting the right course) and effective-efficient execution. According to these folks nothing else matters – except perhaps for good luck.

Are these self proclaimed rational, bottom line, no nonsense folks correct?  Frederick Reichheld published The Loyalty Effect back in 1996. And in so doing he put the matter of customer loyalty on the radar of business.  So folks in business have been working on building customer loyalty for almost 20 years. In the process, customer analytics, CRM systems, customer loyalty programmes, NPS, and voice of the customer feedback have become firmly established in big business.  What is there to show for it?  Which companies have, through these and other ‘vehicles’, cultivating meaningful customer loyalty?  Please name these companies. Now go back and ask yourself if the ‘hard headed’ business folks and the ‘customer gurus’ who pander to them are correct in asserting that moral consideration can be and should be left outside of the business arena.

I say morality matters. I say that the motive that gives rise to your ‘customer-centred’ actions matters: it makes all the difference! Allow me to illustrate the importance of motive through the words of  Edward Slingerland:

“On November 14, 2012, a tourist in Times Square surreptitiously snapped a picture of a police officer kneeling down to help a bare footed homeless man put on a new pair of boots. When posted onto the NYPD’s Facebook page, the photo went completely viral. The officer, named Lawrence DePrimo, had apparently been so moved by the suffering of the barefoot man that he popped into a nearby store to buy him a new pair of boots with his own money. “It was freezing out and you could see the blisters on the man’s feet,” he said when asked about the incident. “I had two pairs of socks and I was still cold”  The story was an enormous publicity coup for the NYPD, but the secret to its appeal was the spontaneity of the officer’s gesture and the happenstance of someone catching it on film.

Imagine if we found out later that DePrimo knew that the photographer was there and had been merely been grandstanding for the camera – his act motivated by the desire for fame rather than spontaneous compassion. This knowledge would instantly transform a heartwarming act of kindness into a horrible travesty. The very act itself would magically change, even though nothing would be materially different: the officer would still be out $75, and the homeless guy would still have a nice pair of boots that he didn’t have before. We have a powerful, ineradicable intuition that a “compassionate” action performed without the right motivation is merely a semblance, a counterfeit of virtue. The flip side is that evidence of sincerity and spontaneity in the moral realm inspires and moves us.

– Edward Slingerland, Trying Not To Try

As I said, morality/ethics/motive matters.  It is the thing that matters the most when it comes to the matter of relating, trust and loyalty. If it did not matter as much as it does matter then many a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ would have made a success of their customer initiatives – cultivated meaningful customer loyalty.

Customer / Leadership: What Is The Access To Cultivating Greatness?

It is the time of the year that many are pushing out their predictions for 2015. I am not in that business: I lack a crystal ball.  Further, I say that the future is not already made. The future is unborn and how you/i/we show up and operate in this world will shape how 2015 turns out.  So in this final conversation of 2014, I want to share with you my thoughts on what it takes to become great; greatness necessarily involves effecting significant and substantial change.

Let’s assume that you wish to reshape your organisation – to effect significant, substantial, change in the way that the organisation operates.  Perhaps, you wish to transition your organisation from a product-centred orientation towards  customer-centred orientation. And/or shift the fundamental stance of your organisation from ‘extracting value’ from your customers to being generously rewarded (by customers) for simplifying-enriching the lives of your customers. It could be that you want to move from treating your employees as resources (things) to treating them with dignity as fellow human beings…..

What is the access to that?  Is there an organisational equivalent to Ali Baba’s “Open, Sesame!”? You know some kind of hidden magical recipe that provides you access to untold riches, instantly, without significant effort, discipline, and/or sacrifice?  I invite you to answer that for yourself. How has all the strategy stuff worked out? What about all the process change / six sigma stuff? Or the customer journey mapping? What about your investments in CRM systems and other technologies (e.g. IVR) have they taken you to the heights of sales effectiveness and/or customer service delight?  Let’s not forget the VoC feedback- has that unlocked the door to customer loyalty riches?

Greatness does not lie on the road well travelled, greatness lies on the road less travelled. Greatness requires dedication – the kind of dedication that flows from total commitment; this kind of commitment arises in response to a possibility-call that resonates with the very core of your being. Greatness requires the ultimate sacrifice: yourself – your way of showing up in the world and the manner of your travel in this world.  Allow me to give life to this through a story (bolding mine):

There was an artist who was so devoted to her art; nothing else in the world had any attraction for her. She had a studio, and whenever she had a moment to spare her first thought was to go to that studio and work on the statue she was making. People could not understand her, for it is not everybody who is devoted to one thing like this. For a time a person interests himself in art, at other times in something else, at other times in the home, at other times in the theatre. But she did not mind; she went every day to her studio and spent most of her time in making this work of art, the only work of art that she made in her life.

The more the work progressed, the more she began to feel delighted with it, attracted by that beauty to which she was devoting her time. It began to manifest to her eyes, and she began to communicate with that beauty. It was no longer a statue for her, it was a living being. The moment that statue was finished she could not believe her eyes – that it had been made by her….. She felt exalted by the beauty of the statue.

She was so overcome by the impression that this statue made on her that she knelt down before this vision of perfect beauty, with all humility, she asked the statue to speak, forgetting entirely that it was her own work…… there came a voice from the statue: “If you love me, there is only one condition, and that is to take the bowl of this poison from my hand. If you wish me to be living, you no more will live. Is it acceptable?” “Yes,” she said, “You are beauty, you are the beloved, you are the one to whom I give all my thought, my admiration, my worship; even my life I will give to you.” ….. She took the bowl of poison, and fell dead. The statue lifted her and kissed her by giving her its own life, the life of beauty and sacredness …..

– Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Art of Being and Becoming

Let me end this conversation by posing this question: What possibility (or cause) matters to you such that you are willing to be and do as the artist (in the story above)?  It occurs to me that this is question worth pondering and answering as you/i head into 2015. I wish you a great beginning and the very best for 2015.

Customer Experience As Idea, Not Methodology Nor Technology

As a thinker, I am struck by how rare original thinking is in the organisational world. As a thinker, I am struck by how little thinking – as in stopping and reflecting on that which is occurring and the pattern of this occurrence – occurs in organisations. As a thinker, I am struck by how little space exists within organisational life for ideas to be entertained and grappled with before the mindless rush to implement these ideas usually through some off the shelf methodologies, methods, tools and techniques.

I say that the idea of Customer Loyalty had power.  And this power vanished when we rushed to turn this idea into practical customer loyalty programmes: loyalty cards, databases, offers and points.

I say that the idea of Relationship Marketing had power. And this power was drained and Relationship Marketing turned lifeless when the idea of Relationship Marketing was turned into the technology of CRM: systems that enslave human beings in data capture and script/process following slaves.

I say that the idea of Customer Experience has awesome power. And many are bleeding this idea dry, void of power, by turning it into the methodology of customer journey / touchpoint mapping, the blind worship at the voice of the customers, and the technology of Customer Experience.

What is it that I am getting at?  Let’s see if I can communicate that which I am seeking to communicate to the practical people that dominate organisational life.  I invite you to read the following words of wisdom (bolding is my work):

The word idea supposedly originates in the Greek word eidos, which means something seen like a form and a way of seeing like an eye, a perspective. So, ideas are not only things you can pick up and ponder. They also give you eyes, new ways of seeing things. Ideas are already operating in our perspectives, the way we look at things. We take our usual ideas for granted, and so, ideas have us rather than we have them….

Is the idea fertile, fecund? Does it make you think? Is it surprising, shocking? Does it stop you from habits and bring a spark of reflection? Is it delightful to think it? Does it seem deep? Important? …. This requires you to ponder it, which means weight it, feel its weight…. Pondering is an action of its own and keeps you holding the idea, from letting it go into other kinds of action before it is fully appreciated. Meanwhile you get a better feel of the idea….

You know, to have an idea and thinking about the idea are two different things, and being practical often means skipping over the hard thinking part…

For ideas to be therapeutic, that is, beneficial to the soul and body politic, they must gather into themselves, garnering force, building strength, like great movers of the mind’s furniture, so that the space we inhabit is rearranged. Your thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memories have to be moved around in new ways, because the furniture has been moved.

A long lasting idea, like a good poem or a strong character in a movie or a novel, continues to affect your practical life without ever having been put there. Ideas that live, live in us and through us into the world. Viable ideas have their own innate heat, their own vitality. They are living things too.

But first they have to move your furniture, else it is the same old you, with you same old habits, trying to apply a new idea in the same old way. Then nothing happens at all except the loss of the idea as “impractical” in your haste to make it “practical”.

– James Hillman, We’ve Had A Hundred Years of Psychotherapy And The World’s Getting Worse

It occurs to me that the conversations that take place here, at The Customer & Leadership Blog, are simply an ongoing exploration and pondering of the ideas of customer relationships, relationship marketing, customer service, customer loyalty, customer experience, customer-centricity, and leadership.

I am no expert, no guru,  in customer relationships (CRM), relationship marketing, customer service, customer loyalty, customer experience, customer-centricity, nor in leadership. Yet, it occurs to me, that it might just be that I have grappled with these ideas at a deeper level than many.  Therefore, any value that i create for you – the person who listens to my speaking – arises out of my willingness to stay with the idea rather than rushing to provide you with a silver bullet for your organisational ills.

Why I have shared this with you?  To provoke thought: to provoke you into doing deeper thinking into the Customer realm before you go and buy the latest snake oil from gurus, experts, consultancies, and IT vendors.  Incidentally, don’t reach for the dictionary to look up definitions of all things customer: customer service, customer relationship management, customer experience etc. Why? Definitions only provide the illusion of knowledge and understanding. There is no replacement for original thinking. A good start would be the following questions:

  • What world of possibility does the idea of Customer Experience open up for us and our customers?
  • What might Customer Experience Leadership look like, feel like, sound like, taste like – for us, for our customers? 

  • What is the first step on the journey of Customer Experience Leadership for us? Is it really getting access to the voice of the customer? Or is it doing that which we know needs to be done for our actions to be in tune with our words?

And finally, I invite you to consider that many if not most organisations have failed to make a success of relationship marketing, CRM, customer loyalty, customer experience etc because these ideas have failed to ‘move your furniture’ leaving the same old you, with the same old habits, trying to apply these radically new ideas in the same old way. 

If you have made it this far into the conversation, I say thanks for listening. These conversations are not easy, not simple. This is deliberate – these conversations are designed to provoke thought from the thoughtful. They are not for the impatient looking for the ten steps to customer success.

Invaluable Customer-Centricity Lessons From Tesco

Tesco: The Darling of Customer Marketing Guru’s Issues Its Fifth Profit Warning

Tesco continues to struggle. According to this piece from the Guardian newspaper, Tesco has issued its fifth profit warning, share price has plunged (down 16%): Tesco is on the floor.  Why does this matter? Why is it worth me writing about.  Let’s go back a little.

In the early 2000s Tesco was much lauded my many: the customer-centricity gurus, the 1:1 marketing gurus, the data mining and predictive analytics players, and customer loyalty program vendors.  Tesco was the exemplar of harnessing customer data through a loyalty programme (Tesco clubcard), using data mining and predictive analytics to generate insights and then doing database driven marketing based on these insights.  In the process Tesco went from being just one player amongst the UK grocery retailers to the the dominant retailer. At one point it looked like there would be no stopping Tesco.

Today Tesco is on the floor.  Why? Because Tesco’s management ended up doing what management teams do: exploiting customers to extract surplus profits for the Tops and Shareholders. I think some wise person said something like “power corrupts: absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

What Can We Learn About The Challenge Of Building A Customer-Centric Organisation?

So what is it that you and I can learn from Tesco if we are grappling with the challenge of shifting a business towards a customer-centric orientation: one not based on using data/insight to exploit customers; one based on using data/insights to generate superior value (product, proposition, customer experience) for the customer?  Here are the paragraphs from this Guardian piece that catch my attention (bolding is my work):

Lewis [CEO], who marks his 100th day in the job on Tuesday, said he was building “a new Tesco” that would eventually reward shareholders. “We need to get back to core principles. We need to improve the service and availability and that is what we are doing.”

Here is what strikes me, how I make sense of this statement based on my prior lived experience:

1. Moving an organisation from a business as usual (product-centred, extractive, short-term focussed) to a customer-centric organisation is akin to building a new organisation;

2. Building a new organisation is not simple, not easy, not quick. It requires the persistent application of substantial energy across a large number of people for a long period of time – years. Only a CEO who has the power and genuinely cares about the wellbeing of the organisation will do what it takes, and keep doing it over the long term of many years.

3. Part of the challenge in building a new organisation is sacrifice. This sacrifice especially involves shareholders. Why? Because usually the shareholders have gotten fat through ‘bad profits’ delivered by their agents (Tops) putting in place strategies-structures-people-practices that collectively take advantage of customers, suppliers, and the employees – extracting surplus rents (to use the term used by economists);

4. Building a customer-centric organisation is matter of getting back to core principles. Notice, it is not discovering some secret recipe nor the latest shiny miracle technology. It is about honouring already discovered, well known, rarely enacted, core principles. How does one honour a principal? By living it – being an exemplar of that principle in action.

What Specific Actions Does It Take To Be A Customer-Centric Retailer?

Let’s continue this conversation by looking at another paragraph that speaks to me. Here it is:

In a bid to improve customer service, the retailer has taken on 6,000 more staff since mid-October, and despatched 6,000 existing head office staff to spend one day a fortnight on the shop floor to get a taste for the sharp end of the grocery business. Lewis has decided not to lay off people after Christmas, a traditionally slack time for retailers, as part of this customer service drive. “Certain activities help you manage profits, but can have a detrimental impact on how you serve customers,” he said. “What we are trying to do is deliver better for customers … I believe that is the foundation from which we can build a new Tesco, which is financially attractive to shareholders.”

Here is how I choose to make sense of this paragraph:

  1. A customer-centric organisation is one which “delivers better for customers”. Delivers what better? Delivers better products. Delivers better service. Delivers better value propositions. I sum this up by saying it delivers a better Customer Experience.
  2. Customer service is a key thread of Customer Experience.  Organisation which seek to show up as customer-centric have to get customer service right. This is especially so for service heavy businesses where the employee to customer encounter is important, even critical.

  3. Getting customer service right means investing in the people who actually are the customer service of the organisation. Please notice the word “are“.  Your front line people are your customer service; they do not merely deliver the customer service that someone else (perhaps in head office) has already produced. This critical aspect of reality is much ignored: your front line people simultaneously invent-create-deliver customer service every time they encounter the customer – they are your customer service!

  4. Investing in people is long term play. Think Warren Buffet: you select the right people and then you hold on to them over and for the long term.  That means not laying people off during traditionally slack periods. Why? Because two way loyalty (sticking by one another) is essential to creating the context for greatness to show up from your people.  When you, the CEO, take the pain for your people you are putting a deposit in the bank account of goodwill. And this allows you to draw on the goodwill of your employees when you need it. Think Market Basket.

  5. The core challenge of building and then keeping in existence (over the longer term) a customer-centric organisation is this one: “Certain activities help you manage profits, but can have a detrimental impact on how you serve customers”.  It occurs to me that this is THE most critical insight.  There is a broad range of ingrained, celebrated, management practices that deliver the numbers over the short-term whilst at the same time chipping away at the  quality of the Customer Experience.  Over the shorter-term there is no visible impact. Then the hit occurs and when it does it is big. I refer to this as the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’.

  6. The people who collectively constitute the biggest obstacle to making the shift to a customer-centric organisation and keeping this customer-centric orientation intact (and effective) are the people who work in head office: those who make policies, set targets, dictate management practices…. I am talking about the Tops and Middles: those who work with concepts and not reality.  John Timpson of Timpson recognised this and turned the role of the head office from a dictatorship to a helpline, and in the process reduced the number of people in head office, and moved them to the branches where the real work of interacting with and serving customers occurs.

Final Thoughts: Leadership and Governance

If find it interesting that the management practices that have brought Tesco to its knees ended up being unconcealed when an outsider (no relationship to the Tops running the organisation) took over the role of CEO; and

It is the competitive world in which Tesco competes which has forced Tesco’s leadership to deal with these management practices.  It is only when that which had been hidden (bullying of suppliers by head office folks, bullying of store managers by head office folks, manipulating profits through shady accounting practices) could no longer be hidden that both people and management practices are being addressed.

It occurs to me that Tesco is in crisis as there has been a fundamental breakdown in leadership and governance. The Board of Directors failed to do that with which it is concerned. Ensuring that the right person/s are running the organisation. And overseeing the actions (and management practices) of these people. Interesting then that the Chairman of Tesco has had to walk the plank.

I thank you for listening to my speaking. And I invite you to share your thoughts and experience with me. Looking forward to reading your comments.