Blog Archives

The Paradox At The Heart of Customer-Centric Business

I am no longer a fan of customer-centricity nor customer-centric business. I am not a fan of the way many are going about customer focus, customer-centricity, or customer obsession.  It occurs to me that the approach taken by many towards arriving at customer focus, customer-centricity, and customer obsession is not gold, it is fools gold.

Why? Because it occurs to me that an organisation that shows up as customer-centric does not centre itself on its customers. At least not in the simplistic sense that is being written-talked about, promoted and acted upon by many.

I get that I make a bold, even controversial statement, and it highly unlikely to win me applause. That is OK, given that my commitment is to write my truth and take a skeptical stance towards the dominant ideologies and practices.

I get that you might want to better understand why it is that I assert that which I assert here.  Allow me to point at, illustrate, and unconceal that which I am getting at here by sharing with you some quotes.  Let’s start with Emmy Van Deurzen, chartered counselling psychologist and registered existential psychotherapist:

…. one can never ignore the needs of others when making personal decisions but neither can one allow others to entirely determine oneself even when alone. This is a paradox

Yes, you do need to consider customers – their needs, their desired outcomes, their ‘jobs-to-be-done’, their preferences etc.  And you cannot run a successful business just by focussing on your customers. The game of business involves other players whose needs have to be considered.  For example, a facet of business life caught my attention whilst working with smaller businesses, which had not so gripped me for most of my life working in big businesses.  What facet? The critical importance of finding, hiring, organising, enabling, inspiring, channeling, and retaining the people who actually work inside the business to do that which is necessary to create value for customers.  It occurs to me that this is just as important for big businesses, it is not so evident because the dysfunctions of a demotivated workforce don’t show up as vividly in a huge organisation.  Or take a look at Zappos, its success is partly built on the way the founders and management team treated suppliers (as a valuable part of Zappos) and thus called forth co-operation from them.

Furthermore, if you simply follow what customers are telling you then you leave yourself open to the disruption caused by those who can see beyond what customers are saying in market research and customer surveys. Here, I share a passage from Matt Watkinson, the author of The Ten Principles Behind Great Customer Experiences:

It is not only consumers who have shifted towards other-directedness and ended up struggling: businesses have too. The dominant obsession with market intelligence, competitor analysis, and customer research is all about developing a more powerful radar, and the endless hand-wringing and strategising over social media betrays the kind of anxieties that are most often found in those eager for the approval of others.

In contrast, we most admire those businesses with a strong inner direction – a clear set of values, integrity and sense of purpose – and tend to lionise celebrity CEOs who bring that ethos to life…….. Customers churn between suppliers to find the best deal, not because we are all extremely price sensitive, but because there is nothing to be loyal to.

What Matt is pointing at here is that we are not simply the kind of beings that economics says we are.  Nor are we the kind of beings that rationalist philosophy, behavioural psychology, and scientific management assumes that we are.  The human being is a richer human being. A human being that strives for meaning and connection, open to being loyal to ideals, values, missions that elevate human life.

Finally, I want to leave you with wisdom from John Kay, an British economist:

If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in another. This is the concept of ‘obliquity’: paradoxical as it sounds, many goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. Whether overcoming geographical obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting sales targets, history shows that oblique approaches are the most successful, especially in difficult terrain.

Obliquity is necessary because we live in an world of uncertainty and complexity; the problems we encounter aren’t always clear – and we often can’t pinpoint what our goals are anyway; circumstances change; people change – and are infuriatingly hard to predict; and direct approaches are often arrogant and unimaginative.

So let me remind you of my central assertion:

A customer-centric organisation does not centre itself on its customers. It is a paradox. And I say that it occurs to me that the way that many organisations are going about customer focus and customer-centricity, will not get them there. The path heavily promoted, and commonly taken, is fools gold.

Whilst I abhor combat, I do welcome conflict: conflict is simply the showing up of difference. And if difference is approached through the spirit of dialogue then it unconceals aspects of the world that are hidden from each of us. So if you disagree with that which I have written then please speak your mind, educate me, share that which you see and which I do not see.  I wish you a great day and thank you for making the time to listen to my speaking.

The Dark Side of Customer Focus, CRM, and Customer Experience

What is the cost of putting profits before customer interests?

This week one of the UK’s largest insurance brokers got hit with a £7.4m fine. Why? This is what Tracey McDermott, the FCA’s director of enforcement and financial crime, is reported to have said:

Swinton failed its customers. When selling monthly add-on policies, Swinton did not place the consumer at the heart of its business. Instead it prioritised profit. 

At the FCA we have been clear in our expectation that firms must behave in the interests of consumers. Today’s outcome shows our approach in action and will act as a deterrent for other firms tempted to put profit figures above the fair treatment of customers.

 The Dark Side of Customer Experience

Is Swinton the only organisation where people in the business put revenue and profits ahead of treating

customers fairly?Not according to Monique Reece:

The dark side of customer experience is the way in which some companies take advantage of their most loyalcustomers. For example, if you are a loyal cable subscriber, you may very well be paying more for your service than a new customer who just got a deal for switching carriers. Or if you are a magazine subscriber, you might asked to renew your subscription at a much higher price than if you just let the subscription lapse and subscribed as a new customer.

Dark patterns: carefully crafted user interfaces that trick users 

Is the limit of the dark arts that companies use to fleece customers?  Here’s what Michael Hinshaw says in a recent post of his:

According to darkpatterns.org, a dark pattern is “a type of user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things.”  Put another way, firms that employ dark patterns trick their customers into buying/signing up for things they almost certainly don’t want.

It can be as egregious as getting rental car customers to buy insurance they don’t want or need, or signing up for recurring shipments, billed monthly, when all they want is a single purchase…..You get the drift. Dark patterns get customers to do things they wouldn’t typically choose to do, if they were presented the options in a straightforward manner.

What does Michael Hinshaw recommend?  He recommends finding the source of these “bad profits” and taking the necessary action:

So, ask yourself: does your company ever try to “trick” your customers? If the answer is yes, put up your hand and “out” the practice, pushing your firm to do something, well, better. There’s always an alternative to using dark patterns.

Is customer focus the antidote to these dark practices?

Time and again I have called attention to the ‘extraction’ context that lies hidden underneath the content of customer relationships, CRM, customer focus, customer experience, and customer-centricity.  And it has occurred to me that I have been a lone voice spoiling the customer love fest. Not anymore.

I share with you selected passages from Bruce Kasanoff’s latest post which shows up for me as being the best post I have ever read when it comes to customer focus and/or customer-centric business:

The vast majority of “customer-focused” initiatives reek of a taker mindset.…. They do not think of customers’ interests first. They do not give major new benefits or services to customers. They seek to take more money out of people’s wallets.

In short, these initiatives were designed by takers, and if you are a giver it is enormously frustrating to deal with the hypocrisy that surrounds you: your company says it wants to help customers, but its policies and procedures are designed to take from customers, not give to them.

The taking mentality creates systems that make it so hard for customers to stand up for themselves that it’s easy for companies to “legally” lie, cheat and steal from them.

Putting takers in charge of customer experience is like asking a bear to guard your honey.

If you really, truly want to grow your company faster than your competitors, hire, promote and empower givers.

Givers are people who think of other people before they think of themselves. They are the people who should be designing and running customer-focused initiatives. They are the folks who have the vision and ability to grow revenues, because they are focused on the needs of others.

As I have said before, an authentic shift towards customer-centric business requires a genuine shift in consciousness. A shift from a “You OR Me” context to a “You AND Me” context. A shift from shareholder capitalism to conscious (stakeholder) capitalism. A shift from maximising short-term profits (at the expense of people and planets) to maximising long term wellbeing for all. A shift from calculating mind towards a generous heart. A shift from taking-keeping-excluding to giving-sharing-including.

What do you say?

Why an authentic customer orientation requires a transformation (Part II)

In this post I continue the conversation that I started in the last post.  I am almost never at a loss to write as the words write themselves.  And indeed I have just deleted forty minutes of writing.  Why?  It occurs to me that they add nothing to what Robert Francis QC says.  Before I share his words with you let me set the scene, the context, such that his words have significance for you.

What occurred, how were the customers – the patients – treated?

“The evidence gathered by the Inquiry shows clearly that for many patients the most basic elements of care were neglected. Calls for help to use the bathroom were ignored and patients were left lying in soiled sheeting and sitting on commodes for hours, often feeling ashamed and afraid. Patients were left unwashed, at times for up to a month. Food and drinks were left out of the reach of patients and many were forced to rely on family members for help with feeding. Staff failed to make basic observations and pain relief was provided late or in some cases not at all. Patients were too often discharged before it was appropriate, only to have to be re-admitted shortly afterwards. The standards of hygiene were at times awful, with families forced to remove used bandages and dressings from public areas and clean toilets themselves for fear of catching infections”

What is the profound truth that Robert Francis QC unconcealed and discloses about us and for us?  

This is the ugly truth.  What drives organisational policies and practices is the obsession with making the numbers.  And for as long as our companies, our organisations, our institutions, our political system is focussed on making the numbers all this talk about customer focus, the customer experience, citizen charters, the patient experience is bullshit.  Or as Werner Erhard would say it is simply “icing on a mud pie”. You may prefer “putting lipstick on a pig”.  An authentic customer orientation requires one to stop with the icing, with the lipstick. And deal with the mud pie, the pig.

Now is the time for me to share with you the profound truth that Robert Francis QC has unconcealed and disclosed as a result of his investigation and report:

People must always come before numbers. Individual patients and their treatment are what really matters. Statistics, benchmarks and action plans are tools not ends in themselves. They should not come before patients and their experiences. This is what must be remembered by all those who design and implement policy for the NHS.

What else does Robert Francis QC say that is worth listening to?   When I say listening to, I mean really listening to – the kind of listening that shakes and rattles our bones.

I heard so many stories of shocking care. These patients were not simply numbers they were husbands, wives, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, grandparents. They were people who entered Stafford Hospital and rightly expected to be well cared for and treated. Instead, many suffered horrific experiences that will haunt them and their loved ones for the rest of their lives.”

By now your internal dialogue will have kicked in. And if you go by the standard rules then you are most likely pointing the finger at the nurses and doctors. That is to say that you are pointing the finger at the people who actually do the work.  This is fashionable – it is the ‘rogue agent’, the ‘rotten apple in the barrel’ reasoning/defence.  Only those who are not versed in the ways of systems thinking and modeling jump to this conclusion. And the politicians. When I say politicians I point at the Tops wherever they are and in whichever organisation they reside.  What does Robert Francis QC say?

“It is now clear that some staff did express concern about the standard of care being provided to patients. The tragedy was that they were ignored and worse still others were discouraged from speaking out.”

When a system does not generate the kind of behaviour that we want it to generate then who should we hold responsible?

I say that there is no such thing as a dysfunctional system. Every system works perfectly. Every system is perfectly functional.  A system’s behaviour is determined by its structure and its rules.  Hence, the responsibility and accountability for the performance – that which shows up in and as a result of the system – ALWAYS lies with the designers: the people who get to say what the pieces are, who the players are, what the roles are, and what the rules are.  These people almost always sit either outside the system ‘pulling the strings’ and/or at the top of the system.  What does Robert Francis QC say?

A number of staff and managers at the hospital, rather than reflecting on their role and responsibility, have attempted to minimise the significance of the Healthcare Commission’s findings. The evidence gathered by this Inquiry means there can no longer be any excuses for denying the scale of failure. If anything, it is greater than has been revealed to date. The deficiencies at the Trust were systemic, deep-rooted and too fundamental to brush off as isolated incidents.”

And finally

If you want to excel at the game of service, customer experience, of customer loyalty then I say listen to these word such that they shake your very being and thus transform you:

People must always come before numbers. Individual patients and their treatment are what really matters. Statistics, benchmarks and action plans are tools not ends in themselves. They should not come before patients and their experiences. This is what must be remembered by all those who design and implement policy for the NHS.”

Let me put it bluntly.  If you do not love people, yes LOVE people, LOVE being of service, LOVE contributing to creating a world that works for all, then you are wasting your time on customer service, on customer experience, on customer focus, on customer-centricity.  Go and do something else. Go and do something that you can be great at. At the Customer thing you will be mediocre at best: at the level of the individual, the team, the department, the organisation as a whole.  Go and play the least cost route: Ryanair.  Or, go and play the great product route: Apple, Dyson…

What does it take to make an impact as the Chief Experience Officer?

Allow me to introduce you to Lonnie Mayne , Chief Experience Officer at Mindshare Technologies. As his bio says “Lonnie Mayne influences each and every interaction involving Mindshare’s valued clients—from front-desk greetings to printed marketing materials to everyday sales calls to impromptu gifts of friendship.”  Mindshare is in the business of providing companies (and their executives) valuable customer insight gleamed from tapping into the Voice of the Customer.

Just before I went on my holidays I had an interesting conversation with Lonnie and in this post I want to share some of  points/learnings I took from that conversation.

Why focus on the customer and the customer’s experience? 

Lonnie’s answer to this question is simple: at some point the customer will be faced with a choice and if you have not created value for the customer, made his/her life better, then the customer will switch to another supplier.

Yes, it is possible to be doing well financially if you have created enough value for the customer through your product/service without asking/involving/focussing on your customers and what matters to them.  However, sooner or later this situation will change and when that happens your business will pay the price.  Put differently, the price of not listening to your customers and not keeping in tune with them is often paid further down the line.  As I write these lines I cannot help but think of Tesco in the UK.

What is the central challenge facing the Chief Experience Officer?

As a result of 20+ years of business experience, Lonnie is clear that CEO’s tend to be focussed on profitable growth. And in pursuing profit it is easy for the CEO to ‘lose sight of the customer along the way’.  How exactly?  The CEO doesn’t consider the impact of decisions deeply enough when it comes to the impact on the customers.  Put differently, too much focus on profit leads to poor decision making: decision making which favours short term efficiency and cost reduction over long term effectiveness in meeting/addressing customer needs.

Therefore, the central challenge for the Chief Experience Officer, according to Lonnie, is to ensure that the customer is present at the leadership table.  How?  By asking the following question: what is the impact of this decision on the customer?  Clearly it is not enough to ask the question.  The Chief Experience Officer (or Chief Customer Officer) also has to provide an answer.  In practice this means ‘applying science to the Voice of the Customer’ to deliver a sound business case that speaks to the CEO.

What does it take to make a meaningful impact as the Chief Experience Officer?

Moving from talking about customer focus and customer experience to actually orienting a company around customers and generating the right customer experience is not easy.  Some say it requires a transformation in mindset, culture and organisational design.  What does Lonnie say and how has he gone about it?

1. Ensure you have the wholehearted support of the CEO and build a good working relationship.  Lonnie is clear that to be successful in his role he needs the wholehearted support of his CEO.  That means reporting into/working with a CEO that gets the importance of the customer and the customer experience.  It helps if the KPI’s of the Chief Experience Officer align with the CEO.  Lonnie tells me that his success metrics are identical with those of his CEO.  So what is the difference between Lonnie and his CEO?  Lonnie’s focus is first on the customer and then on profitable growth whereas the CEO’s focus is first on profitable growth and second on the customer.  You can say that they complement each other.

2. Have real clout within the organisation.  As Chief Experience Officer, Lonnie is not simply heading up a staff function with no line authority or responsibility.  He used to lead the sales and account management function.  Now, as the Chief Experience Officer, Lonnie has direct responsibility for marketing, sales and client retention.

3. Broaden the definition of customer to include internal customers.  Time and again Lonnie referred to internal customers as well as external customers when he talked about customers.  It occurs to me that Lonnie gets that to serve/make an impact on external customers he has to serve/make an impact on the internal customers: the employees of Mindshare.

4. Involve the people in the organisation in grappling with the key questions.  There is considerable value in having the right people grapple with the right questions.   When it comes to designing/generating the right customer experience, the right people are the employees.  Which questions? Lonnie mentioned two questions that he posed: “How would you ever know, if you were outside the organisation, what we stand for as an organisation?”; and “What do we want the ultimate Customer Experience to be?”  The value/beauty of taking such an approach is that you do not have to get ‘buy-in’ later, the ‘buy-in’ is built in right from the start.

5. Access and use of the Voice of the Customer. Lonnie has been able to influence decision making by tapping into and making good use of the Voice of the Customer.  He calls that ‘practicing what we preach’ given that this is the core business of Mindshare.

6. Speak the language of the business.  It is not enough to access the Voice of the Customer.  Why?  If the Voice of the Customer does not speak the language of business then it falls on deaf ears.  What is the language of business?  Finance.  Specifically and in practice this means making a sound economic case for acting on the Voice of the Customer.

7. Get the CEO in front of customers regularly.  Given that CEOs are disconnected from and tend to lose sight of customers and what matters to customers it is essential to the get the CEO in front of real flesh and blood customers. Put differently, facts and figures can never replace face to face encounters: there is nothing like being there, seeing/hearing/experiencing the customer first hand.

8.  Respectfully challenge the CEO as and when necessary.  Clearly, this is only possible if and only if you have confidence.  It is easier to be confident if you have built a good working relationship with the CEO, you have access to the Voice of the Customer and you know how to use it effectively – to make a sound business case.

I dedicate this post to Cathy Sorensen.  Cathy I thank you for your words of kindness:  it is great to know and to feel that my writing makes a contribution to you and that you missed me during August.

No payoff from good customer service and customer friendly focus?

Is Richard Bove on to something?

When an anomaly comes along and/or someone questions that which is taken for granted by a community we can either ignore it or we can dive into it, grapple with it, and see what we can learn.  This piece by the New York Times about the poor service Richard X. Bove experienced at a Wells Fargo branch caught my attention.  And in particular the following statement

“I’m struck by the fact that the service is so bad, and yet the company is so good,” said Mr. Bove, an analyst with Rochdale Securities. “Whatever it is that drives people to do business with a given bank, in my mind, now has to be rethought.

Lets be clear on this.  Richard Bove has come across unhelpful bank tellers, unexplained monthly fees and fumbled mortgage application.  On the other hand, as a securities analyst, he observes that the bank is doing well financially.  And on that basis he questions the value of banks being good to their customers as opposed to pushing products and managing risk.

I say great, we should keep an open mind and question the taken for granted.  Further, I say that there is no simple relationship between customer service/customer focus and financial performance. What mattered yesterday might not matter today or tomorrow.  What did not matter might be critical in the future.  In any competitive industry, one has to be mindful of competitors and consumer needs/behaviours.

Is it really possible to treat your customers badly and do well financially?

Why might it be possible for a bank to do well financially despite lacking the customer orientation and not delivering good customer service?  The simple answer is that customers keep doing business with the bank – they keep accepting poor service from the tellers, accept/don’t notice unexplained monthly charges and put up with fumbled mortgage applications.  So the question becomes: why do customers stick with their existing banks and not move to other banks?

It is fashionable to peddle the view that many customers will take their business elsewhere if their existing supplier treats them badly.  I am not convinced that this is actually the case for the majority of customers. I say that customer surveys get access to what customers would like to do (switch after a poor experience) as opposed to accessing what customers actually do.  Why the difference? We stick with what is convenient and we accept what works well enough.  Furthermore, we get used to being lied to, being hit with unexplained charges, difficult to use/irritating IVRs, company staff that are clueless ….. And we learn to cope.  For example, we use online banking as opposed to going to the branches.

My experience, UK experience, suggests that many if not most customers are firmly convinced that one bank is pretty much like any other bank. Furthermore, they are convinced that it is a difficult, time consuming, chore to move banks.  Lastly, they are convinced that the process will go wrong and then they will have to expend more time trying to get hold  of unhelpful banks and companies to fix what is gone wrong.  Given this, it is no surprise (to me) that banks have some of the highest ‘customer loyalty’ levels around. I wonder if some of this also applies to the USA.

At this point you are most likely to be thinking that I am in agreement with Richard Bove: that treating customers right simply doesn’t matter and banks should focus on pushing products and managing risk.  Not quite.  To get a rounded perspective we have to deal with competition and time.  Let’s start with competition.

Lets consider the impact of time and competition

Where each player in the industry works to the same theory of business and thus goes about business the same way customers really have no choice.  However, when a new entrant comes along and does things differently then the opportunity for disruption occurs.  Think Amazon.  Hasn’t Amazon fundamentally changed the book buying and reading experience and in doing so attracted and retained hordes of book readers. Has it not thrown the incumbents to the wolves?  Think Apple: how many sleepy/cosy industries has Apple disrupted?

So my key point is that as and when a new entrant shows up in the banking industry and offers a superior value proposition centred on honesty, convenience and customer service in the banking industry it will be interesting to see what happens. In the UK I am watching the progress of Metro Bank with interest.  Also, it will also be interesting to see if Richard Branson and the Virgin Group do anything interesting given that they are looking to buy branches from the existing banks.

Time matters.  The best way for me to make this real is to share the example of Tesco.  For ten years or so Tesco did extremely well financially, it was the company to beat in food retailing in the UK.  That is no longer the case as this piece shows.  What happened?  In the UK Tesco failed to invest in the customer experience.  Specifically, Tesco failed to invest in the stores and in the people that served customers.  Over time the customer experience became poorer and competitors caught up.   Then the recession arrived, customers went to competitors, Tesco lost market share, issued a shock profit warning and the value of the company dropped by £5 billion.

Yet, to get that time matters we do not have to go beyond the financial services industry.  Look the banks made a fortune over the last 30 years.  More and more deregulation delivered more and more revenues and profits. Then the financial services industry as a whole went bust.  Yes, bust.  Time caught up with financial services industry – it just took 30 years for the consequences to catch up with behaviour. And we, through our governments, have socialised the losses.  It is only because the citizens/taxpayers have taken the hit, a big hit, that the banks continue.

Summing up

Wells Fargo may be doing well today because it is reaping the fruits of yesterday and/or sacrificing the future.  Yes, you can always boost short term revenues and profits by milking lazy, confused, gullible and helpless customers.   Put differently, the only way we can know if Wells Fargo can get away with poor service by bank tellers, unexplained monthly charges and fumbled mortgage applications is to see how things play out in the next 10 years or so.  If you are tempted to take your customers for granted then I urge you to reflect on: what Amazon did to the book publishing/selling industry; what Apple has done to numerous industries including music, mobile phones, computing; and how the mighty like Tesco, Nokia, RIM have fallen.

Note: This is my first and last post for August.  I am taking time out and intend/expect to be back in September.  For my part, I wish you well and thank you for taking the time to read what I write and share your views.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,224 other followers

%d bloggers like this: