Who and What is the Biggest Obstacle to Making the Transition to Becoming a “Customer Company”?

Are the Tops are the biggest obstacle to your organisation becoming a “Customer Company”?

Some of you have questioned my emphasis on the Tops and their critical importance to any successful shift towards your organisation becoming a “Customer Company”.  Some of you have asked me why it is that I have focussed on the Tops and not the Middles and the Bottoms.  The answer is twofold.

First, there is the fact that every system has certain points that have much higher leverage than others. Isn’t that  what we are looking for when we map the customer journey, assess the customer experience, and look for the “moments of truth” – the interactions that really matter and leave customers happy or unhappy, promoters or detractors?  Ask yourself who you would approach and seek to convince/persuade if you wanted to trigger major organisational change.  Would you approach the sales rep or the call-centre agent or would you approach one or more people in the C-suite?

Second, there is my 20+ years of experience at the coal-face of organisational change and business performance improvement in its many disguises.  Yes, the Middles and Bottoms have some capacity to resist/impede change initiated by the Tops. What is missed is that they rarely have the capacity to initiate major organisational change nor to bring it to an end abruptly.  This capacity, this power, lies with the Tops.

Never underestimate the Tops addiction to control and the fear of losing it!

Allow me to share a real life example with you.  This example is provided by Judith E. Glaser in her book Creating We. In this book she shares the story of  a weight loss company and its shift toward customer-centricity.  Here is an abridged version of her story:

Major change – or transformation – usually involves a huge shift in power that takes place across a company. In the 1990s, a weight-loss company was experiencing customer defection at a high rate….

Customers were defecting from their programs and, worse than that, they were telling other potential customers that the company was awful…… The company was getting a bad reputation for high cost/low value…..

The company leaders didn’t believe how serious the situation was. They felt that Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig were no match for their billion dollar powerhouse. But they were wrong and the feedback proved it.

……. we did extensive customer research, as well as franchise research among their 4,500 sales consultants, and discovered that the hard-sell style did indeed cause customers to rebel at some point and to spread the word that the company was insensitive, pushy and only out for money.

….. we engaged hundreds of internal consultants and totally revamped the sales approach, and, most of all, its relationship to its customer.  The company changed its value proposition ……. we created a sales-training process to teach everyone how to be sensitive to customers, to talk and partner with them……. the program was called “Partnership Selling”….

Customers loved the new approach, and sales consultants did, too. Interestingly, however, the new approach created great problems for the leadership team. 

The previous hard-sell approach…… enabled the company to track each sales consultant’s every move. Each was trained to memorize a sales script and not divert from it….. This highly structured, predictable, customer insensitive approach enabled them as a company to track what everyone did and said down to the last word, giving the company control of every customer interaction. They rewarded sales consultants for getting the pitch perfect…….

The new customer-focused process reduced the control of the corporate headquarters and increased control for the sales consultants to manage the “customer experience”.  Corporate went along with the new approach for a short while, maybe six months, then retracted the whole value proposition, for fear they were losing control.  Corporate were unable to ensure that everyone followed the same process. They therefore were unable to reward the best sales consultants for following the script…… Their focus was totally internal and control-based. 

…. during this time, the former president returned to run the company. He favoured the canned controlled interaction with customers and reinstated the old approach to selling. The hard sell returned and the customers left……

During the process, they were hell-bent on reinforcing their own way of doing business, dominating the customer and the sales organisation, and being in total control. After they went out of business, a few of the executives realised they had authored their own demise.

They executives were at the edge of new insights. They were taking the coaching and doing well. Then their insecurities kicked in, the fear of losing control returned, and they went back to square one.  They could not leave their Comfort Zone of doing things the way they’d always been done.  The only WE they could see was the familiar WE of their fellow senior executives, not the inclusive WE of the enterprise as a whole, and certainly not the WE of the customers.

When organisations are faced with change, fear often causes them freeze and hold on to the current way of doing things, even if its not working…..

Unhealthy cells stop taking nourishment from outside, stop taking feedback, and defend their position; and the president responded the same way. He stopped listening to the marketplace, to the customer, and defended his point of view; he was not open to feedback or to new ways of thinking. People had to please the boss, and they did.


Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant. Passionate about enabling customer-centricity by calling forth the best from those that work in the organisation and the intelligent application of digital technologies. Subject matter expert with regards to customer strategy, customer insight, customer experience (CX), customer relationship management (CRM), and relationship marketing. Working at the intersection of the Customer, the Enterprise (marketing, sales, service), and Technology.

5 thoughts on “Who and What is the Biggest Obstacle to Making the Transition to Becoming a “Customer Company”?”

  1. I agree with you Maz. Tops definitely have to think about WE as the whole organization. But, is control really that important. As long as sales reps understand the philosophy and deliver on numbers, what impact does having control have?


    1. Hello Rubai

      Thanks for generating a conversation. I do not find it fruitful to discuss-debate if control is really that important. This tends to be a discussion about right and wrong, appropriate or inappropriate…..

      I work far more from a zen like view. What is? And furthermore, what is is. That is to say, see reality and work with it.

      In reality, as I have experienced it, it occurs to me that people do strive to control others. Parents strive to control their children. Husbands strive to control their wives. Wives strive to control their husbands. And Tops strive to control the organisation.

      Can control be exercised through other means? Yes, some organisations generate control through shared mission, shared values, share in the rewards. And here John Lewis comes to mind: a retailer ‘owned’ by its employees who are referred to as partners.

      All the best


  2. A very powerful argument Maz, particularly the point about control

    I see exactly the same thing in organisations I have worked in where we have tried to “empower” the shop floor to do the right thing.

    It works for a while then fear cuts in and the whole thing comes to a grinding halt



  3. Hi Maz,
    Your title poses the question: Who and What is the Biggest Obstacle to Making the Transition to Becoming a “Customer Company”?

    Thinking about the organisation as a system perhaps another way of thinking about it is: Who is the first obstacle to making the transition to becoming a customer company?

    The Tops may or may not be the biggest obstacle but they should definitely be the first that is tackled.



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