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 genesis of this post lies in the following article: Is Customer Experience Manageable? An Industry Pundit Says No. In reading this article and listening to the embedded interview I was struck by the importance Esteban Kolsky attached to defining Customer Experience clearly. In fact Vala Afshar, the author of the post starts with the following statement:
“What is customer experience (CX)? To get customer experience right, companies need to first get the definition of customer experience right, according to an enlightening talk I had with Esteban Kolsky,…
How important is it to clearly define Customer Experience?
Think of a tree. Ask yourself if any definition of tree fully grasps and discloses tree? Can you come up with a definition that will clearly point out the entity tree to someone who has never seen-experienced tree – say a Martian?
Think of service. Ask yourself if any definition of service accurately captures, discloses and exhausts service? Furthermore, ask yourself what use a definition of service is, to a being that has not experienced service?
Consider that the definition, any definition, discloses little about the phenomena and/or entity as it is in itself. Consider that the definition discloses he who is doing the defining. In particular, it discloses his/her worldview, understanding and interests.
Getting back to Customer Experience, consider that it is not possible to get the definition of Customer Experience right. Further, consider that even if it was theoretically possible to arrive at one accurate-precise definition of Customer Experience, this definition would not yield any practical value.
What did the distinction CRM bring into being which was not already present?
I invite you to take a look at CRM as a distinction. What arrived on the scene with the arrival of CRM as a distinction. I say that the following arrived:
Customer lifetime value – looking beyond signing up a customer, or effecting a single transaction, and seeing, perhaps for the very first time, the economic value of the customer over his/her lifetime.
Treat different customers differently – using one’s understanding of each customer’s needs-wants-preferences and her lifetime value (£/$) to tailor one’s products, propositions, communications, conversations, and interactions so as to create superior value for the customer and the company.
The learning relationship – using each customer conversation and interaction to enrich the company’s understanding of the customer AND enriching the customer’s understanding of the company. Thus enabling the company to become better at ‘treating different customers differently’ and increasing the ‘customer lifetime value’.
Now here is the joke and it is not funny. Most organisations in the rush to embrace CRM technologies did not fully get present to and hold on to these powerful distinctions. Instead they rushed to automate to reduce costs or do what they were doing faster. Or they used CRM technologies to effect more control over their staff so enabling micro-management. Or they used CRM technology to bombard with personalised marketing messages that did not show up as personal to the customers. Or they started on the path of single customer view – many still have not arrived there.
Then there is Chris Zane of Zane’s Cycles. He attended a conference (according to him in his book Reinventing The Wheel) and heard a speaker share the concept of customer lifetime value. Chris, seized by the world opened up by this distinction, of taking the longer term orientation (maximising customer lifetime value), altered his way of doing business so as to maximise customer lifetime value. And as a result has built a great business.
What does the distinction Customer Experience open up which was not present before?
What arrived on the scene with the arrival of the distinction Customer Experience? It occurs to me that the following arrived on the scene either present for the first time or moved from the background (where it was hidden) to the foreground:
Customer Experience as ‘product’ and differentiator in itself – this was the central assertion of Gilmore and Pine in their book The Experience Economy. When I think of this I automatically think of Build A Bear and Apple with the launch of the iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad, iPad – the entire ecosystem.
Enter into the customer’s world and experience it as she experiences it – think of this as ‘walking in the customer’s shoes’ in the broadest sense not in the narrow sense of what it is like and how it feels interacting with your organisation. This broader sense of ‘walking in the customer’s shoes is the access to surfacing the customer’s unmet needs and thus the source of lucrative new revenue streams. This moving-enlightening-human video point towards that which I am pointing at here. And at the same time it only gets us somewhat towards the destination that I am pointing at here. I read the other day that a huge industry – prepared and packaged salads – was created when someone figured out that folks in the USA wanted to eat salad and did not do so because they were not willing to do what needed to be done to put the salad together.
Experience your organisation as your customer experiences your organisation – this is what I call the narrow sense of ‘walking in your customer’s shoes’. How does the customer experience your organisation: your company, your brand, your products, your people, your processes? How does the customer experience your marketing, your selling, your service, your billing, your return policy, your charges…? United Breaks Guitars is the classic illustration of this. Undercover Boss at it’s best shows the Tops getting to the front lines and getting some access to how the customer experiences the organisation.
Emotions – pay attention to human emotions. Every conversation, every contact, every interaction will call forth human emotions. Emotions lie at the root of ALL decision making! To shape human decisions focus on and influence-shape human emotions. The best way that I can explain this is by sharing what my wife said with such gusto “I love my iPad!”. This is coming from a woman that hates computers and did not want the iPad to start with. Now she is using it throughout the day, every day. Through her enthusiasm she has influenced her father to buy an iPad and her mother to buy a Mac for the first time in her life.
Forget definitions of Customer Experience. Leave that to the people who make a living out of defining and arguing about definitions. Instead follow in the steps of Amazon (Jeff Bezos), Apple (Steve Jobs), Zane’s Cycles (Chris Zane), UCLA (Dr Feinberg), Zappos (Tony Hsieh): explore and live the distinctions that are unconcealed and opened up by Customer Experience. Or don’t. As always the choice to take the road less travelled will only be taken by a brave few. That is OK. The death of the old gives space for the new to flourish. And when the new flourishes the old dies. Think of Nokia, think of Apple.
I thank you for listening to my speaking. I continue to be drawn to share that which I share by those of you who continue to subscribe to this blog. I wish each and everyone of you the very best.
I have been helping one of my clients grapple with growth challenges. During the course of our conversations we got around to looking at the business from the standpoint of customers. As such, I asked for an analysis of the customer base by revenue and profit.The analysis shows that the top 10 customers accounted for the lion’s share of the company’s revenues and thus its health and viability.
On that basis I was expecting the management team to have in place a policy, plan, practices and people to take great care of these customers. I was expecting that there would be some kind of game plan: to keep in regular touch with these customers; to stay in tune with their changing needs; to come up with new products and services to meet these needs; and to ensure that any issues were identified quickly and addressed.
What did I find? I found that these customers were signed up some years ago, these customers are getting the service they contracted for, they have made no complaints, and so there has been no communication with these customers other than the monthly invoice.
“Ridiculous!” That was the statement that the MD made when I asked him to reflect on the importance of these customers to the business and the way that his business has been treating these customers.
It occurs to me that so many people – at all levels of the organisation and across all functions – are so immersed in the doing that there is so little reflection upon what is being done, and not done, and the implications. Which makes me wonder, how much of what occurs, and does not occur, in an organisation would show up as “Ridiculous!” if viewed through the eyes of the customer?
So why is it that the management team of this client are oblivious to the importance of their existing customers? The simple answer is that they are fully immersed in:
1) the sexy stuff of ‘developing new products’;
2) the sexy stuff of getting new channel partners so as to acquire new customers faster and grow market share; and
3) dealing with all that it takes to make the organisation work – the people issues, the process issues, the information issues, the financial issues, and the systems issues.
Behind the obvious, is the not so obvious. Is it possible that there is no focus on existing customers because the MD is from a sales background and enjoys the thrill-chase of new customer acquisition? Is it possible that there is no focus on existing customers because the other directors take their lead from the MD?
Is the same kind of thing true in your organisation? How much of what you do, and do not do, would show up as “Ridiculous!” when looked at from a customer view, or a longer term perspective?
Back to my client. The good new is that the MD has taken steps to engage with at least one of his top 10 customers. And there is significant opportunity to create value for this customer by selling them new products and solutions that are more in tune with their current and future needs. Sounds like a win-win to me and as such it shows up for me as being the best kind of business.
From CRM to CEM: is it as easy as it sounds?
With CRM’ organisations took an’ inside-out’ approach to doing business with customers, though I doubt they knew that is what they were doing when they were doing it. When this didn’t work out as planned, some shifted to advocating an ‘outside-in’ approach and called it Customer Experience Management. I get that when it comes to writing or talking it is easy to shift from ‘inside-out’ to ‘outside-in’. What is it like in practice? What does it take to truly see the world through the eyes of our customers?
My experience is that really takes something to see the world through the eyes of another. My experience is that it is a huge ask to experience the world as another experiences it. My experience is that it is all to easy to be persuade oneself that one has shifted from an ‘inside-out’ view to an ‘outside-in’ view and yet be firmly stuck in an ‘inside-out’ view.
Aravind Eye Hospital: where ‘free’ costs 100 rupees!
What does it really take to see the world through the eyes of our customers? Allow me to share this example which I came across in a wonderful book, which I throughly recommend reading, called Infinite Vision:
While giving away free services might appear to be easy, Aravind’s experience proved to the contrary. “In the early days, we didn’t know better,”……”We would go to the villages, screen patients, and tell those who needed surgery to come to the hospital for free treatment. Some showed up, but a lot of them did not. It was really puzzling to us. Why would someone turn down the chance to see again?” Fear, superstition, and cultural indifference can all be very real barriers to accessing medical care, but Aravind’s leaders were convinced that there was more to it than that. After a few more years and several ineffective pilots of door-to-door counseling, they arrived at the crux of the issue. “Enlightenment came when we talked to a blind beggar,”….. When pressed on why he had not shown up to have his sight restored, the man replied, “You told me to come to the hospital. To do that, I would have to pay bus fare then find money for food and medicines. Your ‘free’ surgery costs me 100 rupees.”
…….. The research found that transport and sustenance costs, along with lost wages for oneself and accompanying family member, were daunting consideration for the rural patient. Aravind learned a valuable lesson: just because people need something you are offering for free, it does not mean they will take you up on it. You have to make it viable for them to access your service in the context of their realities.
Aravind Eye Hospital: it is not enough to see the world through customer eyes, you have to be moved to act
So that is the first step, genuinely seeing the world through the context of the lives of your customers. And it is makes no difference at all unless your organisations acts on what it has learnt. What did the folks at Aravind do? Let’s read some more from the book:
So Aravind retrofitted its outreach services to address the chief barriers. In addition to the free screening at the eye camps, patients were given a free ride to one of its base hospitals, where they received surgery, accommodation, food, postoperative medication, return transport, and a follow up visit in their village, all free of charge……
What difference did this make? Once more from the book:
“Once we did that, of course, our expenses went up,”…… “But more importantly, our acceptance rate for surgery went up from roughly 5 percent to about 80 percent.” For an organisation aspiring to rid the world of needless blindness, this was tremendously significant….
Aravind: two things are critical
What do the folks at Aravind say about this experience of theirs? Let’s listen and learn:
“In hindsight, we found two things are critical,”…..”You have to focus on the nonuser, and you have to passionately own the problem. You can address the barriers only when you own, not shift, the problems.” Paradoxically, that mindset led to what is perhaps the most collaborative outreach system the world of eye care has ever seen.
How does your organisation measure up? Do you really get how your organisation, your offer, shows up for your prospects? Do you really get how your customers experience your organisation across the customer journey? Is your leadership committed to doing what it takes to make it easy for prospects to buy from you? And for customers to keep doing business with you? Is your organisation up for passionately owning the problem or is it designed to hide and/or shift the problems on to customers and others?