Why is it that I prefer not to business with a customer-centric business? Allow me to share my answer by referring to the UK grocery market. Which supermarket chain was applauded, by many, for its customer-centred way of doing business? Tesco. What was held responsible for fuelling this customer-centred way of doing business? The Tesco Club Card. Through this loyalty card, Tesco captured and made effective use of customer shopping data to grow revenues and optimise profits. In the process Tesco came from nowhere to became the world’s second largest retailer.
Where is Tesco today? Here is what The Economist said back in July 2014:
… on July 21st Tesco abruptly announced that Mr Clarke would be leaving his job, apparently prompted by a warning that profits in the first half of 2014 would come in “below expectations”. In June Tesco revealed a drop in same-store sales that Mr Clarke admitted was the retailer’s worst performance in 40 years….
Recession taught middle-class shoppers that discounters like Aldi and Lidl were cheap but not nasty; they spent some of the money they saved at higher-end grocers, such as Waitrose and Marks & Spencer……
Tesco is faring badly. Its sales dropped by nearly 2% in the year to June while those of its closest rivals, Asda (which is owned by Walmart) and Sainsbury’s, rose by 3% or better. Despite his exertions, Mr Clarke failed to persuade consumers that Tesco offers better value than the discounters or quality to match the upmarket merchants.
Is this as bad as it gets? No. Here is what the Guardian newspaper stated in on the 22nd of September this year:
Tesco has suspended the head of its UK business and called in independent accountants and lawyers to investigate after discovering that its guidance to the City overstated expected first-half profits by about £250m….
Tesco shares fell almost 8% on Monday morning to an 11-year low of 212p, making them the biggest faller in the FTSE 100 index and wiping £1.5bn off the retailer’s market value. More than £6bn has been wiped off share value since 21 July, when the previous chief executive, Phil Clark, was ousted.
Why is it that Tesco is in such deep trouble? I say that Tesco has arrived at where it is at due to its customer-centric way of doing business. What do I mean by this? I mean that the Tops got fixated into harnessing the data yielded by the Club Card to get customers to part with more of their money in Tesco stores.
Was this done by offering customers superior products as in higher quality products? No. The products were middle of the road yet ways were found of selling these at higher prices through clever marketing and merchandising.
Was this done by providing superior customer service in the stores? No. Tesco cut back on the number of people working in the stores so it was not unusual for the customer to find that there was nobody around to help when help was needed or find long queues at the checkout tills.
Was this done through a superior shopping experience? No. Management chose not to invest in the stores or the shopping experience in the stores. As a result the stores become less and less attractive over time.
I prefer not to do business with a customer-centric business because the management of such a business is more likely to be focussed on extracting value from their customer base through a variety of clever manoeuvres than earning its keep through superior products (Apple, Waitrose), superior service (John Lewis, Zappos), low prices (Lidl, Aldi), or a combination of service and low price (Amazon).
If you are a customer and your supplier is touting customer-obsession then you might want to think about whether that is a good thing. Is the obsession with providing you with a superior product, superior value, and/or experience? Or is it an obsession with with finding clever ways of getting you to buy more, pay more for what you buy, and get less in return? You might want to keep in mind that which many remind me of: business is not altruistic.
Where is Customer Experience Management At?
What are the highlights of the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services study: Lessons from the Leading Edge of Customer Experience Management? It occurs to me that there are many. And for the purposes of this post I want to concentrate on a subset.
According to the study: Less than half of the companies view customer experience management as a strategic priority. Most are struggling to develop clear and consistent customer experience strategies, support, processes, and metrics across the organisation.
Put differently, even the 50% who see customer experience management as a strategic priority are finding it hard.
What are the biggest obstacles-hurdles on the path of Customer Experience?
The authors of the study point out three challenges that making the going hard:
- Proving ROI – folks are finding it difficult to prove ROI as they are not able to link business outcomes to customer experience effort.
Data & Integration – single customer view turns out to be a lot like enlightenment only a select few have realised it (after years of effort) the rest are having a difficult time knitting together their data and systems.
Customer-focused culture - it turns out that speaking-writing-evangelising about customer focus turns out to be easy, creating an organisation which is genuinely customer focussed is ‘a bridge too far’ for most (if not almost all) organisations.
If you want to access the authors prescription for addressing these challenges then I suggest you read the study. For my part, I find their recommendations rather unsatisfactory. Why? Their six lessons in Customer Experience Management start with ‘Lesson One: Create A Customer-Centric Culture’! What genius! And how do they recommend that you do that? Rewards and punishments! Our stupidity never ceases to amaze me.
What Option Is Open To You If You Cannot Prove ROI?
Three options show up me for me when I consider this question. First, stop flogging a dead horse and do something else in the organisation that you find interesting or which holds the promise of success that you aspire to. Second, move to another organisation – one which seems to you to be more receptive to the Customer Experience thing.
What is the third option? Allow me to introduce this option by sharing the following quote:
Under-think your life’s purpose
Finding your ‘purpose’ in life is an attractive ambition, and I’m sure there are plenty of people who’ve simply said “This is what I was born to do,” but not everyone is as lucky as that. The simple alternative for the rest of us is to ask “What is the next useful action I can take?” Keep it simple – if you notice a problem that needs solving, solve it, and if you meet a person who needs help, help them.
- David Turnball
Looking at this pragmatic advice through a Customer Experience lens, it occurs to the that the third option is as follows:
- If you meet a customer who needs help, then help that customer;
- If you notice a problem (that impacts the Customer Experience negatively) and have the capacity to solve that problem, then solve that problem; and
- If you have an opportunity to do something unexpected-special for a customer then go ahead and do that something special.
Your small actions may get noticed, they may infect your colleagues and through them feed into the larger organisation. At the very minimum, you have the satisfaction of lived true to your values and made a difference in the lives of some of your customers.
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.
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?