What flavour of customer centricity are you practicising?

I have been thinking that the term ‘customer centricity’ is totally meaningless.  Like strategy there is no shared agreement nor definition nor theoretical foundation for ‘strategy’.  So the coin of strategy has become debased – people in business use it whenever they want something to sound important.  I believe the same applies to customer centricity.

Thinking further I can distinguish various flavours of ‘customer centricity’:

Website personalisation (usually through a platform like ATG)

  • In this instance, customer centric means that we push content to you that either you have declared that you are interested in (preferences) and/or we believe that you are likely to find interesting.  The Amazon website is a great example of this.

Direct marketing on steriods

  • Within this school, the emphasis is on collecting as much data as possible on customers (demographic, psychographic, behavioural, transactional…) turning this data into targeting list – those customers most likely to buy the product that I am interested in selling – using data mining techniques to build predictive models.

Customer lifecycle marketing

  • Here customer centric means pushing out the right flavour of communication to the right customers at the right time.  And it involves taking a time perspective: where is the customer in his journey and what communication makes most sense. This flavour also relies on collecting lots of data on customers.  And it more likely to be practiced where an organisation has a broad range of products that can be sold to the customer.  It is also more likely to be practiced where the customer has to be kept ‘warm’ because of a relatively long interval between purchases.

Prroduct development / user experience design

  • Here the emphasis is actually on spending time with customers (or the people who we want as customers) to really get these people.  How they think, how they behave, what outcomes they are after, what gets in the way etc to design better products and better interactions between the customer/user and the product – in some cases the product is the website / virtual store.

Customer service

  • As customer service is viewed as a cost by many organisations, here customer centricity can mean “How do we recoup some of these costs by using inbound interactions to sell stuff to customers?” Or it can mean how can we get the most value from our contact centre agents by having them make outbound sales centred calls when they are not busy
    dealing with inbound contacts.  Often it means how can we reduce costs by getting the customers to do the work of agents: drive them to the website or the IVR.
  • The organisations that push the envelope here – very few –  view customer centricity as learning what drives calls to the contact centre and using this insight to effect change in the business operations that are failing the customer and thus driving demand into the contact centre.  They get this is win-win proposition: the company has a great opportunity to cut costs and improve the customer experience if business operations are redesigned.

Customer experience

  • This flavour has not yet crystallised.  Nonetheless, customer centricity here tends to mean a focus on interaction design in the form of ‘moments of truth’ and ‘experience as theatre / entertainment / engagement’.

I am sure that there are more flavours.  What I find interesting and which I wish to point out is that it can be argued that none of these flavours constitute ‘customer centric’.

It can be argued an organisation that is customer-centric is an organisation that is hell-bent on creating superior value (economic, interactional, emotional, social) for its customers.  It is an organisation that is willing to sacrifice short term gain if it is at the expense of customers (‘bad profit’) to create long term sustainable gain (‘good profits’).

Do you know of an organisation that is practicing this last  form of customer centricity?  If you do then please share with me.

An easy way to connect with your customers: speak their language

Recently I wrote a post asking why it is that Experts do such a poor job of relating to the ordinary person: After This Experience I Am Puzzled: Why?

Some weeks ago I was given a cheque and this week I finally made it to the high street.  As I was waiting to put this cheque into my account I witnessed an interesting spectacle.  A cashier in his early twenties was serving an older man in his sixties and it was clear that they were not connecting.  As I listened to the conversation I noticed something interesting:  the cashier was talking in the language of banking whereas the old man was talking every day language and because of this the cashier was failing to connect with this customer.  An example: the cashier talked about funds and the transfer of funds; the old man spoke about money and asked about how he could get his hands on his money.

It hit me that a very simple way that companies can better connect with their customers is to talk the language of their customers.  No need to get in McKinsey to formulate a strategy.  No need to pay Oracle a fortune to buy their CRM suite.  No need to pay Accenture to redesign processes and implement the Oracle suite and so forth.  Just change the language you speak to match the language that your customers speak.

Language matters.  When you speak my language you acknowledge me, you respect me, you validate me, you make me feel good about myself.  In turn I cannot help but feel good about you and thus want to do the right thing by you – the law of reciprocity.  I have had the good fortune to live in a number of cultures and travel to many countries and the one thing that I have noticed is that I have received much better treatment when I have made the attempt to speak the local language!  And when I have made the effort to learn about and embody the local culture.

This lesson applies to all organisations:  you can enter into the world of your customer and form closer ties with your customer simply by speaking her language.  Yes her language – Professor Moira Clarke of Henley Business School told us today that some 85% of purchases are made by women.

Dear customer this is what we mean by “relationship”

If you take the time to read the articles that gave rise to the “Relationship Marketing”, “CRM” and “Customer Experience” movements there are a number of principles that lie at the core:

  • Work relentlessly to create superior value for your customers;
  • Treat different customers differently because different customers have different needs;
  • Treat different customers differently because you cannot afford to spend the same amount of money on ‘Economy’ customers as you can on ‘First Class’ customers – to use an airline metaphor;
  • Treating different customers differently includes adjusting your actions towards the customers on an ongoing basis as you learn more and more about them – some called this customisation, websites call it personalisation, others understanding it as tailoring your actions to suit the person in front of you; and
  • If you do this consistently and better than your competitors, your customers will continue to do business with you even when they are offered ‘incentives’ (usually in the form of price discounts) to switch to your competitors.

The interesting thing about human beings is that we cherry pick – we take what we like and completely discard the rest.  It is as if you are given a recipe for a great dish and you select some of the ingredients and just throw the others away because they disturb you in some way.  As a result of this, too many companies – but not all, have come to understand “relationship” in a totally self-serving way.  If they were being truthful they would write a letter along the following lines:

“Dear Customer

Welcome to Big Corporate, we are delighted to have you on board.  We are not like Apple.  We don’t disrupt industries; we do not even come out with must have products; our service levels are also pretty ordinary as we do the minimum we can get by with to keep a lid on costs. The reality is that we are pretty much like everyone else who competes for customers in our category.

Over the last ten years or so our world has turned upside down.  And it is all down to the Internet – it has given you shoppers the upper hand.  Not only can you compare prices easily, you can also share your voice with millions around the world and listen to your fellow shoppers instead of our corporate speech: our advertising and PR.

So we listened to the Relationship Marketing and CRM folks.  We have bought into this in a big way and invested many millions in the software that will enable us to build a relationship with you.  Why is that important you ask?  Well if we build a relationship with you then we get to make more money, more profit!

Let me explain what we mean by “relationship”.  We are thinking along the following lines:

  • We will get as much data on you as possible – anything we can get away with legally;
  • We will use that data to figure out what we can sell you and then we are going to send you letters and emails  to encourage you to buy what we think you are up for buying;
  • If you do not respond the first time then we will give it another go and then another go;
  • We will offer you these products at a higher price than the price that we are offering people who currently do not do business with us;
  • If your existing product, policy or subscription comes to an end then we will send you a renewal reminder that is some 30% higher than you could get if you were to sign up as a new customer through our website;
  • We want you to fit in with the way that we work, the way we do business;
  • We are expecting you to do more of the work yourself so it would be great if you were to go to our website and help yourself and if you do manage to call our Customer Service line then we expect that you will use our IVR to help yourself;
  • If you do manage to get through to one of our agents then we cannot guarantee that we will be able to sort out your issues there and then.  If we cannot sort out your issue then we expect you to ring back on another day as our agents are not allowed to ring you back at a time that suits you;
  • We really do not like complaints as we believe that we are doing the best that we can so we are going to make it as hard as we can for you to complain including insisting that you put your complaint in writing and send it via the post;
  • Even though we are in the digital age we are not going to allow you a click to chat facility for when you are having problems on our website and need our help;

  • Nor are we going to allow you to use an instant messaging system to get through to our agents;

  • Whilst we do allow you to send email don’t expect the kind of response that you get at work. No, please allow at least two-day – usually more.

Now that I have explained what we mean by relationship we are really hopeful that you will be so satisfied that you will tell all your friends and family to become our customers!”

Here is the ridiculous part:  no company would ever consider sending this kind of communication to a new customer yet that is what the customer will experience because that is how many companies operate!

After this experience I am left puzzled: why?

I made a visit to see my doctor today to get his assessment on the results of the blood tests.  It was easy enough to see the doctor, he greeted me warmly and had already reviewed the results of the blood  test.  So far so good.  Then he went on to tell me that there is a problem with ….. and that he will prescribe tablets to deal with the issue.  He gave me the prescription note and enthusiastically told me that the good thing is “you no longer need to pay for your medicines as you can get an exemption certificate from the dispensing chemists”.

So I wandered out of the doctor’s office wondering what exactly is the issue?  What will this medicine do?  How long will I have to take it?  What are the side effects?  And then I wondered why it was that my doctor, a friendly chap who takes his job seriously, did not anticipate and thus address these questions with me.

When I turned up at the chemists I handed over the prescription note and told the lady “My doctor has told me that you will issue me with an exemption certificate as I no longer need to pay for my medicines”.  She looked at me puzzled and told me that on the contrary the doctor has to issue, sign and forward the paperwork to the national health service so that an exemption certificate is issued.  Nonetheless, she told me that she would issue the prescriptions without charge and advised me to go and see my doctor to get the paperwork done.

So while I was waiting for my medicines to be prepared I made my way to the doctor’s surgery and relayed my conversation with the chemist.  The receptionist then pulled out the relevant form and asked me to fill it in – including the medical condition that made me eligible for the exemption.  I told her that whilst I could fill in my personal details the doctor would have to fill in the medical part as he is the expert.  She accepted that explanation, I filled in the form, signed it and left on the promise that she would take care of it.

As I headed back to the chemist to pick up my medicine I wondered why are people and institutions so inconsiderate.  Why had my doctor, a good doctor in so many ways, not:

  • Anticipated  and answered the normal questions that a layperson is likely to have when you tell him that an important part of himself  is not working properly;
  • Anticipated and dealt with the concern, the fear that a normal person has when you tell him that as a result of prescribing him this medicine he will no longer have to pay for any medicines;
  • Complete the medical exemption certificate for me so that all I had to do was sign it.

So this evening I did the research via the Internet to answer my questions and concerns.  It looks like the medicine  is a hormone replacement medicine.  And that once you start on this medicine you take it for the rest of your life.  Perhaps that is why my doctor acted as if I was being prescribed a treat.

Which leaves me asking the question again:  why, oh why, do experts (e.g. the Doctor) behave in such an inconsiderate manner towards the lay person?  Whilst the normal person (the lady at Lloyds chemists) who has no medical expertise was so helpful and considerate: she told me what I needed to do and she did the right thing by looking at the medicine and checking with the dispensing chemist (another expert) that I was eligible to get my medicine free of charge.

A tale of two insurance companies: Aviva v Paymentshield

The best way to work out the character of a company (as opposed to the personality that is portrayed in the marketing and selling phases) is how the company treats you when you decide to stop doing business with that company.  The company either treats you with respect and makes the encounter easy for you or it does the very opposite: makes it hard for you to cancel so that you either do not cancel or that it takes longer to cancel and thus gives the company time to get more money from you.

In the last month I decided to cancel an insurance policy with Aviva and another one with Paymentshield.

All it took for me to cancel my policy with Aviva was a telephone call to Customer Services.  The call was picked up in less than 30s and a friendly voice greeted me on the other line.  Once the security checking was done, I simply asked for my policy to be cancelled there and then.  The young man asked me if I was sure that I did want to cancel the policy.  Once I said “Yes” he cancelled the policy there and then – in less than a minute.  After cancelling the policy he told me “You will receive a letter confirming the cancellation within the next 7 days”. I thanked him and the whole interaction was completed in less than four minutes.  At the end of the call I felt good: good about the encounter, good about the young man who had helped me and good about Aviva.

My experience with Paymentshield is still ongoing and has been painful.  I dialled the number for Customer Services and then picked the option for cancelling policies and then proceeded to wait for someone to pick up the phone.  After 6 minutes a woman picked up the phone and went on to the do security check.  When that was over she asked me why I was cancelling the policy.  I stayed calm even though a part of me was fuming as I just wanted her to cancel the policy – like Aviva did.  Staying calm I explained the reasons and she seem to be satisfied.  So I asked her to cancel the policy.  The response: sorry, I cannot do that for you as the system is down, please call back another day!

So, I had waited for 6 minutes to get through to an agent and spent another 3 minutes or so on security check and explaining my reasons for cancelling only to be told that I had to ring back another day.  Sensing that this was a deliberate ploy to reduce cancellations, I hit the website and emailed Paymentshield, here is my email:

“Dear Sirs

RE:  Master Policy No……

I rang today to cancel the policy.  After waiting for six minutes I got through an agent and asked for my policy to be cancelled.  She was more interested in finding out why I was cancelling my policy than actually cancelling my policy.  This agent told me that someone would ring me later today to cancel the policy.  Her reasoning: the system is done right now and I cannot do the cancellation.

Frankly, I do not believe a word of what she told me.  So I am writing to you, officially, to request that you cancel my policy today.  Please ensure that you stop direct debiting my account forthwith – immediately.  I also request that you cancel / delete any and all information that you hold on my bank accounts.


The website promised that emails would be responed to within 2 days.  My response took 3 days and here it is:

“Subject: Paymentshield Enquiry

Thank you for contacting Paymentshield Mr Iqbal.

We acknowledge receipt of your cancellation request.

We can confirm your policy has been cancelled with immediate effect, however please be advised that it can take up to 10 days to stop your Direct Debit. To ensure that no payment is made during this time, please also cancel the Direct Debit at your bank or building society.

If you have any further queries, please do not hesitate to call our Customer Services Team on 0845 6011 050. Our lines are open between the hours of 8am and 7pm, Monday to Friday and 8am to 1pm Saturday.

Julia Farrell

 E-mail Administration Team
Paymentshield Limited”

The only problem was that my bank account had already been debited – on that very day.  So I sent another email, here it is:

“Dear Ms Farrell

I have just logged into my bank account and noticed that PaymentShield have debited my account on 21st October (today) by £70.48.


Given that I asked PaymentShield to terminate by policy on the 18th I request that you refund me the sum of £70.48. Please let me know if you will be sending me a cheque or refunding the money through electronic banking.

Kind regards

Maz Iqbal”

And four days later (25th October) I got this reply:

“Subject: Paymentshield Enquiry

Thank you for contacting Paymentshield Mr Iqbal.

We acknowledge receipt of your email regarding a refund of premiums paid and can confirm that your query has been forwarded to our Premium Collection team to be dealt with.  If you wish to query this matter further please email premiums@paymentshield.co.uk

If you have any further queries, please do not hesitate to call our Customer Services Team on 0845 6011 050. Our lines are open between the hours of 8am and 7pm, Monday to Friday and 8am to 1pm Saturday.

Julia Farrell”

So here I am writing this post on Sunday 14th November – 28 days later.  As yet I have not received a refund of the premium that was taken and so will have to chase up Paymentshield or take the matter up with my bank.  Now what are the chances that I will ever do business with this company again?  Nil.  What are the chances that I will do my very best to make sure that people whom I can influence never do business with this company? 100%

Now the interesting thing is that I dialled the number for sales and interestingly enough I got through to someone within 60 seconds!

The problem with Customer Experience is the designers

The problem with Customer Experience is that the vast majority of people who are working in this area lack understanding and expertise in human centred design.  As these people are often operate from an economic and engineering view of the world too often the customer experiences they design only meet functional needs – the neocortex.

What is rarely designed for is the emotional ( the way you make them feel) and spiritual (what you stand for in life) aspects.  The stuff that really matters.

I had an example of that just today.  I rang Customer Services, a young lady picked up the phone after a minute or so and then dealt efficiently with my request.  All done – functional needs met.  Yet, I left the call feeling the clinical coldness / efficiency of the encounter.  In fact I did not feel that there had actually been an encounter at all: no human warmth, no sense of fun, no spontaneity.  It reminded me of hospital:  when I am in a hospital I simply want to get out as soon as I can as hospitals lack human warmth.

I believe that there is a movie that illustrates what I am talking about – it stars William Hurt and is called The Doctor.  A customer experience designer can learn  a lot from watching this film.

You don’t find Customer in the P&L or in the Balance Sheet

I don’t publicise the fact that I started out in accountancy and finance – in fact as a Chartered Accountant I am a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales.

Now I have been wrestling with the a problem: despite all the talk of customers being in the driving seat and the need for companies to be customer focussed and/or customer centred, it is truly hard to find more than a handful of companies that are customer focussed and even less that are customer centred.  Why?

Whilst grappling with this question two thoughts came to me and they are both related to finance.

The first is that I remember a friend from the venture capital community telling me that the way venture capitalists directed/managed the companies they owned could best be described as “management by Excel”.  What he meant was that the VCs determined what price they wanted to sell the business and at what time.  Once they had decided this the plugged some figures into an Excel sheet and that told the senior management (CEO and fellow directors) of the company what revenue and profit figures had to be delivered each year.  The rest – what actions were taken or not taken to make these numbers – was entirely up to the senior management.

The second thought that occurs to me is that in all of my time preparing and analysing the P&L and the Balance Sheet I never came across the term customers.  There is no value given to customer relationship in the P&L or the Balance Sheet.  There is no value associated with customer equity.  There is no value given to being customer-centric.  Customers simply do not exist in the language of finance.  Neither do employees.

I have read that the Eskimos have tens of words for snow because snow – all the different types – really matters to the survival and well-being of Eskimos. In the English language we have only one word for snow as it relatively unimportant.  In the language of finance (P&L, Balance Sheet) there are no words for Customer – that tells you all that you need to know.

The overwhelming majority of companies will continue to focus on making this years numbers by any means.  If one of those means is to be customer focussed then the company will become customer focussed – for that financial year.  If making the numbers means reducing quality of product or quality of service then those means will be used.  What matters is making this years revenue, profit, cashflow and EBITA numbers.

Or to put it differently in the real world of business, customers and employees are simply means to a higher cause: making the financial numbers.  Can this kind of organisation ever be described as being customer centred?  I’ll let you decide.