Putting The Customer At The Centre of Your Business

Now and then a question comes along that provokes my thinking. Here’s a question that I came across recently expressed in different ways:

  • What does putting the customer at the centre of the business look like?
  • What does it mean to put the customer at the centre of the business?
  • What are the implications (for us) of putting the customer at the centre of the business?

Stop. Hold the automatic weapons fire – the hail of ready made generic and almost always abstract and theoretical answers.

Many years ago I came home after a long difficult day. Upon entering our flat my two year old rushed towards me with a huge smile and with both his arms held up. As I lifted him up and gave him a hug, I found myself making a decision: to put him at the centre of my life.

Grappling with that question it became clear to me (over some weeks) that it meant that his wellbeing came first. That my decisions and actions had to be mindful of the impact on his well being. It also became clear to me that his wellbeing was tied to the wellbeing of his mother – he spent most of his waking life with his mother.

Did it stop there with that abstract realisation?  No. Looking at the way of my living it became clear to me that work came first in the way I showed up and travelled. My son and his mother, got what was left for me to give after I had given all to work. As I was often away from home during the week this meant that he got to spend time with me only at the weekends.

I made a decision – to do just enough at BigConsultingCo whilst actively looking to move to a smaller more local employer. Within a year, I left BigConsultingCo and moved over to a software company which was five minutes drive from home. And for which I did not have to travel….

Let’s be clear on one thing: putting my son’s wellbeing first meant, for me, giving up chasing the promotion to partner in BigConsultingCo.  It also meant leaving a world with which I was familiar/comfortable and walking into a new industry / new company and having to learn a new way of doing business.

Back to the question of putting the customer at the centre of your business – your particular business.  What are your answers to the questions I shared earlier?

It occurs to me that you can put the customer at the centre of your business in at least two ways. You can take the busy road where you will find many: you can put the customer at the centre of your business with a view to learning all you can about that customer, and using that knowledge to influence, shape, manipulate customer behaviour so as to enrich you.  Which may account for the fact that customer loyalty has been declining even whilst big brands have been spending a fortune on their IT armoury.

Alternatively, you can take the road less travelled. You can focus your efforts on gaining a deep understanding of your customer and using this insight to enrich the life of your customer.  How do you enrich the life of the customer?  No generic answer will do.  You have to generate this answer for your customer, your business.  It requires insight – insight into the life of your customer, the expressed needs, and the hidden unexpressed needs/wants.

Apple has enriched the life of their customers through compelling/superior products, a distinctive/superior in-store experience, and premium image.  Amazon has done it through an effortless convenient shopping experience and value for money pricing.  John Lewis has done it through a combination of good products, outstanding service provided by friendly knowledgeable human beings, and a culture of integrity.

Enough for today. I thank you for your listening and wish you the very best. Until the next time…


A ‘Fresh’ Look at Customer Retention and Loyalty (Part II)

Let’s recap Part I of this conversation. The key points as I understand them are:

  • You cannot have customer loyalty without cultivating employee loyalty and investor loyalty. Why? Because they are fundamentally and inherently interconnected.  So debates about which comes first (customers, employees, investors) shows that folks lack a fundamental grasp of that which we are dealing with.
  • Customer retention-loyalty has implications that extend to every corner of the business. It is necessarily a strategic matter. As such the ownership-responsbility-accountability  belongs with CEO.  It cannot be handed off to the Marketing function (or any other function) nor given over to a Chief Customer Officer.
  • Retention is not just another metric. It is the defining metric for the whole business. Retention is used to integrate all aspects of the business into a coherent whole.

OK, now we are in a position to move forward and conclude this conversation. Allow me to set the scene by sharing this assertion with you (bolding mine):

“Stemming the customer exodus is not simply a matter of marketing; it demands a reconsideration of core strategy and operating principles.

I say that it demands a reconsideration of core strategy and operating principles in the context of a new theory of doing business.

What Theory of Business Enables Customer Retention and Loyalty?

Practice is always based on some theory of how the world works. The dominant theory that fuels just about every large business is one of profit maximisation and shareholder enrichment.  With this focus customers and employee are seen purely as means and almost never as ends in themselves.  Which is to say that they are viewed and treated as tools rather than human beings.  Human beings do not tend to be loyal to folks who treat them as tools.

If you are serious about generating sustainable improvements in customer retention and loyalty then you will need to jettison this theory and embrace a new theory of business. Why?  Lets listen – bolding mine:

The new theory sees the fundamental mission of a business not as profit, but as value creation. It sees profit as a vital consequence of value creation – a means rather than an end, a result as opposed to a purpose…

Profits alone are an unreliable measure because it is possible to raise reported short-term earnings by liquidating human capital. Pay cuts and price increases can boost earning, but they have a negative effect on employee and customer loyalty….  

…there are two kinds of profit. Call the first kind virtuous: it’s the result of creating value, sharing it, and building the assets of the business…. the other kind of profit is destructive. Destructive profit does not come from value creation and value sharing; it comes from exploiting assets, from selling off a business’s true balance sheet. This is the kind of profit that justifies terms like profiteering…..

When profit is a company’s goal and purpose, virtuous and destructive profits serve equally well. But once you see profits as a means to, and a consequence of, the sustained creation of value, then only virtuous profit will do.”

What Kind of Stand Do Those Who Excel in Customer Retention and Loyalty Take Toward People?

Which means that a customer retention and loyalty centred approach to doing business requires a particular way of seeing-treating people, and managing the business. Let’s listen – bolding mine:

“…see people as assets rather than expenses, and they expect these assets to pay returns over a period of many years. Loyalty leaders choose human assets carefully, then find ways to extend their productive lifetimes and increase their value. Indeed, loyalty leaders engineer all their business systems to make their human inventories permanent. They view asset defections as unacceptable value-destroying failures, and they work constantly to eradicate them. 

Why treat people (customers, employees, investors) in this manner? Because loyalty to count as loyalty has to be given willingly. Listen:

“You cannot control a human inventory, which of course has a mind of its own, so you must earn its loyalty. People will invest their time and money loyally if they believe that their contributions to your company will yield super returns over time. The secret is … to select these human beings carefully, then teach them to contribute and receive value from your business…”

Is Loyalty a One-Way Street?

The assumption (and practice) as I see it is that the game of loyalty is all about loyalty from customers to the company. Which is to say loyalty is a one-way street. Is this the right way to cultivate and demonstrate loyalty?  Let’s listen – bolding mine:

“The need to keep losses under control led many companies to cover the claims required by their contracts…. then refuse to renew customer policies to avoid future losses. State Farm took a radically different view. It had no intention of canceling customers it had expended so much energy and expense to acquire and maintain, most of them for many years….. Most important, disloyalty to customers would be philosophically unacceptable. Loyalty is a two-way street. Moreover, loyalty must be seen to be a two-way street. How could State Farm possibly expect its customers and agents to remain loyal if the company did not demonstrate loyalty when the chips were down.”

Why Is It The So Many Have Accomplished So Little When It Comes to Customer Retention and Loyalty?

I’ve in the customer retention and loyalty game for 15+ years. I’ve been in the arena not just a mere spectator. I have witnessed many talk fine words, I have seen many undertake all kinds of projects and programmes to increase retention/loyalty. Yet, I have seen none succeed in any meaningful-sustainable way.  Further, when I read about which companies are doing a great job in this domain it is always the same names or new entrants with new business models.

What gets in the way of existing large, publicly quoted, companies excelling at cultivating customer loyalty?  Almost every company approaches retention and loyalty tactically. So you have a bunch of business practices that drive customers to leave. Instead of changing these practices executive put in place retention teams. Let’s be clear, most organisations have merely added on retention teams and other gimmicks to their existing way of doing business. Is this enough? Let’s listen:

Building a highly loyal customer base cannot be done as an add-on. It must be integral to a company’s basis business strategy. Loyalty leaders …. are successful because they have designed their entire business system around customer loyalty…


Summing Up and Closing Out This Conversation


I have shared a particular perspective with you and I have invited you to listen to the speaking of a particular author.  How does this strike you?  Revolutionary? New? Fresh? Stale? Impractical? Nonsense?

Now is the time for me to come clean.  The perspective that I have shared with you is the perspective that I have held since my earliest days in the Customer arena. And the speaker you have been listening to is none other than Frederick F. Reichheld.  When did he speak the words that I have shared with you?  The words were put on paper and issued as a book (The Loyalty Effect) back in 1996.

Look around at what is going on and you are likely to find that customer retention and loyalty has been approached tactically. The usually result is add-on’s to the existing way of doing business. The add-on’s can take many shapes: new website, Facebook / LinkedIn presence, customer retention team, an online customer community, new CRM system…. The results?  Are they not meagre?  Which companies by taking this approach have vaulted into loyalty leaders?  I cannot think of a single one.

Why is it that those who have jumped on the Customer bandwagon have jumped on it tactically, and not strategically?  20 years ago, Frederick Reichhheld said this:

The real trouble is that many, perhaps most, executives today have adopted a paradigm which at its heart is inconsistent with loyalty-based management. Press them, and few will insist that the primary mission of their companies is to create superior value for customers and employees so investors can prosper…”

This strikes me as being the heart of the matter. Within the context of the current paradigm it is simply not possible to cultivate meaningful loyalty. So all that is left is tactics, add-on’s, poverty of increases in loyalty, more tactics….

I wish you well and thank you for your listening. Until the next time….


A ‘Fresh’ Look At Customer Retention and Loyalty (Part I)

It isn’t just Donald Trump that mixes tidbits of fact with much fiction to appeal to those eager to believe. This is also the case when it comes to the business world. Especially so when we get to customer-centricity, customer experience, customer loyalty….. Whilst some folks can tell that Trump is talking nonsense, in the Customer arena it is that much harder to separate fact from fiction, and useful advice from nonsense.  So, today, let’s take a fresh look at customer retention and loyalty.

What Is The Central Assertion of Customer Loyalty?

No, I am not talking about the often mentioned statistic that goes along the lines of “A 5% increase in the customer retention rate can increase business profits by 25% to 125%.” That is just greed that has driven many to go for customer loyalty without a deeper appreciation of what is involved in generating this kind of financial outcome.

I am inviting you to do something that is rather extraordinary in these times: look beyond the surface, go deeper, and think.  What lies behind this statistic?  Consider that the central assertion is something along this line:

“…doing business with people you trust and understand is more predictable and efficient, and thus more profitable than doing business with uninvested strangers.”

Where Do Employees Fit Into The Picture?

As I understand it, Wittgenstein pointed out that a lot of nonsense is spoken due to language itself. One of the major defects is our habit of speaking-thinking in terms of either/or.  Another defect is simplistic cause-effect thinking which looks for only one major cause for any effect. Which might explain why there is so much opinion offered on where employees fit into the Customer Loyalty picture. Some say employees come first. Some say customers come first, employees second. Others ‘say’ employees aren’t all that important just one factor amongst many. Where do you stand?

Listen to this:

“…we could not progress beyond a superficial treatment of customer loyalty without delving into employee loyalty.….. there was a cause-and-effect relationship between the two; that it was impossible to maintain a loyal customer base without a base of loyal employees; and that the best employees work for companies that deliver the kind of superior value that builds customer loyalty…. our concern with employee loyalty entangled us in the thorny issue of investor loyalty, because it is hard to earn the loyalty of employees if the owners of the business are short-sighted and unreliable….. investor loyalty was dependent on customer and employee loyalty, and we understood that we are dealing not with tactical issues but with a strategic system.”

I also invite you to consider that just about every organisation that has jumped on the Customer bandwagon has done so tactically, not strategically.  And almost all the advice on Customer, that I came across, is tactical – which is to say it is centred on tactics even if these are given strategic clothing.  Which is to say that these folks have taken a superficial approach to loyalty.  Still wondering why most if not almost all large organisations have failed to make a meaningful dent in customer or employee loyalty?

Should Marketing Own Customer Retention and Drive Customer Loyalty?

Who should be responsible for cultivating customer loyalty? Who should be keeping a firm eye on customer retention?  Should it be the marketing function as many who serve the marketing function argue?  What is your stand on this?  Now listen to this:

Loyalty has implications that extend to every corner of every business system..… Tempting as it may be to delegate customer retention to marketing, what can marketing do to stem the outflow of employees and investors?  Retention is not simply one more operating statistic, it is the central gauge that integrates all the dimensions of a business..”

Ok, so the marketing function is not in a position to the do the job.  So, should you go out and hire yourself a Chief Customer Officer?  You know someone who sits in the staff function with little authority over the line functions of marketing, sales, service, logistics, finance…?  Will that do it?  Listen to this:

“..customer loyalty is too important to delegate. It has a crucial effect on every constituency and aspect of a business system….The responsibility for customer retention or defection belongs squarely on the CEO’s desk, where it can get the same kind of attention that is lavished on stock price and cash flow.”

Enough for today. Let’s continue the conversation another time and look into what it actually takes to cultivate loyalty and generate the kind of increase in customer retention that results in superior growth, profits, and cashflow.  In the meantime I thank you for your listening and I wish you great living.





Against Slavery to Ideology & Method

The older I get the more I notice that the autonomy and the intelligence of folks in large organisations is put at the service of some ideology and/or method that has taken root in the heart-mind of someone higher up in the organisation.  Typically, this happens when that particular ideology (e.g. “customer-centricity”) and/or method (e.g. “Agile”) has planted itself in the wider business world.

What’s the impact?  Allow me to convey the impact through the following assertion made by Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”

What tends to show up when folks in organisation are ‘in chains’ to some doctrine/method?  This is what I have observed: Stupidity, game playing, and a decrease in effectiveness.

Adherence to the doctrine/method surpasses reasoning hence folks end up doing stuff which they know does not make sense.  To get things done it is often necessary to bypass-bend the doctrine/method.  Therein starts the game playing – making it look like the doctrine/method is being followed when it is not.  The overall impact is a decrease in effectiveness. By effectiveness I mean both outcomes and the workability/capability that generates the  outcomes.

New ideology, method, toolset is introduced with great fanfare. Yet with little understanding: know-how as well as know-what and know-about.  Given sufficient time performance declines.  The Tops and Middles blame the people.  Clearly given the God given status of the ideology/method/toolset the people have to be at fault.  They are not following the method.  I have yet to see the suitability of the method/tool being seriously questioned.  As a result, adherence to doctrine/method is tightened rather than relaxed.  This further degrades the workability/capability of the organisation.  I refer to this as layering stupidity on stupidity.

What is an intelligent way to go about leading-managing an organisation?  Forget doctrine / ideology. Forget method.  Forget blind obedience to anything. Instead focus on calling forth the collective intelligence of your people AND enhancing the workability of your organisation. Let me put this simply: take a zen stance, let fall all fixed thinking (ideology, doctrine, methods, tools..), go to where the action is occurring, and look – really look. Then select the right course of action / method / tool. Once the method/tool has served its purpose, drop it! Like the canoes, when you have used it to cross the river, leave it there at the side of the bank.

Allow me to end this conversation by sharing this story with you:

When the bishop’s ship stopped at a remote island for the day, he determined to use the time as profitably as possible. He strolled along the seashore and came across three fishermen mending their nets. In pidgin English they explained that centuries before they had been Christianised by missionaries. “We Christian!” they said, proudly pointing to one another. The bishop was impressed. Did they know the Lord’s Prayer? They had never heard of it. The bishop was shocked.

“What do you say, then, when you pray?”

“We lift our eyes to heaven. We pray, ‘We are three, you are three, have mercy on us.”

The bishop was appalled at the primitive, the downright heretical nature of their prayer. So he spent the whole day teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. The fisherman were poor learners, but they gave it all they had and before the bishop sailed away the next day he had the satisfaction of hearing them go through the whole formula without a fault.

Months later, the bishop’s ship happened to pass those islands again, and the bishop, as he paced the deck saying his evening prayers, recalled with pleasure the three men on that distant island who were now able to pay, thanks to his patient efforts. While he was lost in that thought, he happened to look up and noticed a spot of light in the east. The light kept approaching the ship, and the bishop gazed in wonder he saw three figures walking on the water. The captain stopped the ship, and everyone leaned over the rails to see this sight.

When they were within speaking distance, the bishop recognised his three friends, the fishermen. “Bishop!” they exclaimed. “We hear your boat go past island and came hurry hurry meet you.”

“What is it you want?” asked the awe-stricken bishop.

“Bishop,” they said, “we so, so sorry. We forget lovely prayer. We say, ‘Our Father in heaven, holy be your name, your kingdom come…’ then we forget. Please tell us prayer again.”

The bishop felt humbled. “Go back to your homes, my friends,” he said, “and each time you pray say, ‘We are three, you are three, have mercy on us!”

Summing up: Many, many, many leaders/managers can do with keeping this story in mind, putting aside the arrogance that goes with their elevated roles, and adopting the pragmatic humility of the bishop.  Focus on workability and use whatever method/tool is appropriate. Do not make a God of a specific doctrine, method, tool.  If you are going to make a God out of anything, then make a God out of your people – their potential to do amazing work and create amazing works.

Enough for today. I thank you for your listening and wish you great living. Until the next time….


Beyond Listening to The Voice of The Customer / Employee

Customer gurus and technology companies push the need for the company to listen to the voice of the customer. Many companies, especially large companies, buy what they are selling. Indeed, it makes sense: listen to the voice of the customer through some manner of surveying customers seems complimentary to conducting regular market research.

HR gurus and technology companies push the need for the company to listen to the voice of the employee. In the service of this sale frightening soundbites are put forward about the state of employee engagement – disengagement is rife and getting worse. What happens, organisations set up once a year surveys of their employees in order to listen to their employees.  Ok, some do it twice a year. Maybe, a handful do it quarterly.

Is this listening?  You may be convinced that this is listening. I do not find myself in agreement with you. I say that listening is a specific encounter between one human being and another human being or human beings.  I say that listening really takes something – it takes a dropping of the self to enter into and get the world of the other. I say that listening rarely occurs inside and outside the workplace – we simply do not have cultural practices that teach us to listen nor call us to listen.

For a moment, let’s assume that surveying customers and/or employees is listening to customers / employees. Is this listening complete?  Put differently, have your heard all that your customers / employees are saying?  Before you come to a definitive answer I consider the following:

When a man whose marriage was in trouble sought his advice, the Master said, “You must learn to listen to your wife.”

The man took this advice to heart and returned after a month to say that he had learned to listen to every word his wife was saying.

The Master smiled and replied, “Now go home and listen to every word she isn’t saying.”

Be with this for a moment. Doesn’t the profound truth of this hit you?  One can listen at many levels for the speaking is occurring at many levels AND to truly listen to another person it is necessary to listen to the speaking that is silent.

I invite you to consider the following:

  1. Listening to the voice of the customer and/or the voice of the employee through surveying is the pretence of listening. It is not listening.
  2. Even the best designed survey will not give you access to the speaking that is silent.
  3. Listening of the kind that really hears can only take place when you genuinely respect and care for the person you are listening to.  At a very minimum it requires a deep sense / feel of our shared humanity.
  4. The only real world evidence that listening has occurred is a change in the way that you/your organisation is in the world. By “is” I mean the way that one shows up and travels in the world: being-doing.
  5. Good strategists, leaders, managers, sales people, customer service folk have to be great at listening to the silent speaking.

I thank you for your listening and wish you a good day. Until the next time…



Mary: What Kind of a Difference Does Generosity Make?

IMG_MaryIf you want to attract customers then you must have something that pulls customers to you.  If you happen to be in the business of selling fine chocolates then good service is necessary but insufficient.

In the fine chocolate business the ‘product’ matters.  By ‘product’ I mean both the quality (taste) of each chocolate and the range of chocolates.  It is the ‘product’ that calls the customer and pulls him back to your business – your store.  I have witnessed folks put up with poor service just to get their hands on the ‘product’ at a competing brand.

So, it is the ‘product’ that Mary makes-sells that drew me the Mary store in the Royal Galleries (Brussels) last week. Yet, I am not writing this because of the ‘product’.

I am writing this as an expression of my sense of gratitude. Gratitude to whom?  Gratitude to the two fellow human beings (Olivier, Eda? ) who served me.  Language fails here: serve is not the right word.  Yes, they provided service. No, they did not merely serve me.

What is it that made such an impact on me?  Their way of being was professional yet human/warm/considerate. Clearly, they knew/cared about their ‘product’ (the chocolates). And, I was made to feel welcome.  Yet, this is not it. All this is necessary yet not sufficient.

What really made the difference?  Generosity.  Olivier offered me several chocolates to taste whilst he was putting the selection together.  Eda? offered me some chocolates whilst Olivier was working the cash till. Both of them were generous in dancing with the conversation that I initiated.

Lesson: If you wish to be granted a space in the hearts of your customers it is necessary to cultivate gratitude in the hearts of your customers. A great way to cultivate this gratitude is through generosity in your way of showing up and travelling in this world. Reciprocity ensures that most of us, most of the time, remember and repay our debts.  The catch here is that the generosity must be genuine and not a technique for getting the better of your customers.

It occurs to me that the real measure of customer-centricity is generosity.  Which is why so many large organisations struggle with the Customer thing.  Interestingly, I have found Amazon to be the exception as I have experienced acts of generosity from Amazon. Each time those acts have left me feeling delighted.





Beware The ‘Customer-Centric’ Enterprise!

It’s evening time, work is finished for the day, and I am taking a stroll.

Across my path I notice a man in his thirties. He smiles.  He starts speaking to me. I reply. He notices that I am a foreigner in this land. He says “English?”, I say “Yes”. He asks where I am from. I tell him. Then he says he likes English football.

I am listening – listening with a view to understand what he is talking about. Then he moves closer into me and starts ‘tackling’ me – the “English tackle” he says. He says something about the World Cup…. I stand there puzzled – why is this fellow up close and personal with me? I didn’t give him my permission.

Right at that moment this feeling hits me: “Somethings not right!”. Automatically, I reach for my back pocket where I keep my wallet.  What do I find?  I find his hand there on my back pocket: he is in the midst of stealing my wallet.

I find myself hit with a wave of disgust. Why? It hits me that it has all been a charade – an effort to distract and deceive me long enough for him to pick my pocket and walk away with my wallet.

A little later it occurs to me that this is true for the whole customer-centric thing.  What do I mean by that?  I mean that when you strip away the fine sounding words, the whole Customer thing – as lived by just about every large business I have come in contact with – comes down to this:

  • Working out which customers have the biggest wallets;
  • Striving to understand the motivations, inclinations, behaviours and weaknesses of customers; and
  • Using this insight to craft-execute ‘strategies’ to attract/engage/seduce the customer long enough to walk away with his wallet without alerting the customer to what is really going on.

So, my advice to you as a customer is be wary of the customer-centric enterprise. Why?  The odds are it is a pickpocket in disguise.  Instead go for the enterprise that has a reputation for great products (e.g. Apple). Or a reputation for great service (e.g. Amazon). Ideally, one that has a reputation for a great products and great service (e.g. John Lewis).