An Unconventional Take on Customer-Centric Business

Some folks are generous. Some of these generous folks think of me as thought leader in the Customer space. As a result when other folks are doing research in customer-centricity, customer strategy, customer experience they are told to reach out and ask me questions.  Such questioning took place recently on the subject matter of customer-centricity.

What is Customer-Centricity? And How Does An Organisation Become Customer-Centric?

The questioner wanted to pick my brains on the following:

  • Definition: what is customer-centricity?
  • Obstacles: what stands in the way of an organisation being customer-centric; and
  • Route-Map: what path an organisation need to take and traverse in order to become customer-centric.

It occurred to me that what the questioner was looking for was a template. Better still a mould. A mould in which you pour in an organisation and out comes a customer-centric organisation.  Or a template, if applied precisely, to an organisation, any organisation, out comes a customer-centric organisation.

Let’s imagine that a customer-centricity wizard conjured up such a template / mould.  Surely, this template would be sold to any and all with the desire and means to purchase it.  What would be the result using this template?  Does it take that much imagination to see that each and every organisation would end up the same. Exactly the same: each would have the exact same understanding of what it is to be customer-centric: channels, processes, practices, structures…. And if this is the case then what would differentiate one of these organisations from another?

I can see the lure of ready made answers to complex challenges, opportunities, and problems.  With ready made answers and templates one does not need to think. One does not need to investigate matters including generating original meaningful insight into customers. Or the lives of employees, and that which is occurring at the coal face where the organisation and the customer meet. One does not have to put oneself in a vulnerable position of trying stuff out and accepting / embracing failure: the situation not turning out as you had hoped / planned. One does not need to be patient and iterate one’s way to customer-centricity.  And of course when one arrives at customer-centricity then one can put one’s feet up, sink into habit, and live on automatic pilot.  Yes, I get the lure.  I can see the lure of instant get rich schemes. Or no effort instant weight loss regimes.  And what do they have in common: they all disappoint. Now compare that with the folks who are serious about dealing with their alcohol addiction and show up at Alcoholics Anonymous.

Might Customer-Centricity Come In Flavours? And Be Context Sensitive?

Consider this. In the world of Apple, customer-centricity means inventing products that folks want to own because they show up as so desirable (so cool), useful (they enrich the lives of customers in some manner), and because they are so intuitive (easy) to use. In the world of Zappos, customer-centricity means providing the world’s best customer service – where it is perfectly ok for a Zappos employee to spend hours on a phone with a customer.  In the world of Amazon, customer-centricity means making it so easy for customers to buy a range of goods from Amazon at a ‘value for money’ price, and receive the goods the next day or so – no travel, no hassle.  In the world of John Lewis, customer-centricity means providing great products and calling forth great service from the folks that work in the business by ensuring that these folks share in the success of the business.

If you get what I am getting at, then you will get my advice. What advice?  Do not look for definitions of customer-centricity. Do not look for a template / mould / recipe to turn your organisation into a customer-centric organisation. Instead, live the question!     Grapple with the question!

What Is The Question And Challenge That Lies At The Heart of Customer-Centricity?

This question: In which way/s do we wish to simplify-enrich the lives of the customers we have chosen to do business with?  

To answer this question well it is necessary to understand the lives (as lived, experienced) of your chosen customers.  Generating this kind of understanding – rich understanding – is a challenge.  Why? This understanding can only come about if you get close to your customers. How close?  You have to enter their lives: to experience the world as they experience the world.  Whilst this sound challenging it may not necessarily be as challenging as it sounds provided you are in touch with your own experience of living – your own humanity. Apple’s enter into smartphones had a lot to do with Job’s frustration with using the mobile phones on the market. Zappos way of doing business is a manifestation of who Tony Hsieh is as a human being: how he feels about people and relationships between people, how he wishes to be treated by folks.

Summing up

I say that to show up as customer-centric you have to give up looking for ready-made answers and grapple with the question. The only question that matters when you are considering customer-centricity is this one: for our chosen base of customers, what do we need to do to simplify-enrich the lives of our customers, and are we doing that which is necessary?  Imagine what becomes possible if all the folks in your leadership are living this question. Imagine what becomes possible if all of the Tops and Middles are living this question. Now imagine if all the folks in your organisation are living this question.

I also say that you have to live this question every day. Why?  Because life is not life but living – which is to say it is a process. Process is flow. Which is to say that all is change. What constituted customer-centricity last month may not constitute customer-centricity today.  Which is to say that customer-centricity is not a thing. Nor a destination.  It is perception: how your customers perceive you. It is also context sensitive.  Think Tesco.  Once Tesco was considered the poster child for customer-centric business: the exemplar.  The context changed with the financial crisis, the recession, and the UK’s austerity regime.  The folks at Tesco did not change their ways.  Yet folks at Waitress who served upmarket affluent customers did notice the change of context. And in so doing they made a number of changes including the introduction of the value range.

I invite you to consider that none of the existing methods, tools, techniques, formulas, recipes, templates will help you in the challenge and opportunity of customer-centricity. The opposite may be the case. Why so?  The nature of our educational process is such that we are addicted to forcing the world to fit our moulds (theories, approaches, methods, tools, techniques).  That is how education makes us stupid.  Yet, the process of living requires us to show up with a sensitivity to that which is occurring and respond to this intelligently. This means coming up with original ways.  Consider that the folks at Zappos went against conventional advice. Consider that Steve Jobs also did the same. Do you remember what folks said about Apple’s move into smartphones, or the format of their stores?  Consider that The John Lewis Partnership is one of the few large organisation that is employee owned (through a trust).  Again, going against conventional practice.

Enough for today, I thank you for your listening.  If you disagree with that which I have shared then I ask you to share your thoughts by commenting.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.

6 thoughts on “An Unconventional Take on Customer-Centric Business”

  1. The expectation for recipes and templates is widespread and sad, but it’s not the fault of company managers and operating practitioners. Such expectations are nurtured and fuelled by the recipe providers: book-writing and conference-speaking gurus, bloggers, academics and not least – reputable consulting firms with “proven methodologies”.

    But is it such a bad thing? While expecting magic results from following a recipe is outright stupid, how should a company approach the imperative to “grapple with the question”, to find their own context-aware answers, and to create their own unique and authentic recipes?

    Wouldn’t a little structure help such efforts? A guided collective discovery and creation process, as opposed to the total randomness of trial-and-error? IMHO this is what ‘methodologies’ are for – frameworks providing structure and guidance, rather than “Do 1 – 2 -3” recipes and templates.

    Book, blog and webinar titles like “7 ways to improve your Customer Experience” or “13 steps to Customer Centricity” are hardly the guiding frameworks I talk about, but surprisingly popular among audiences. Fuelling their expectations amounts to exploitation of their naivety and I see it as somewhat less than ethical. But offering some solid rational structure as a base of self-discovered answers is probably better than leaving them “to their own devices”?

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    1. Hello Vladmir,
      First, welcome. I thank you for your contribution.

      Yes, I can see the value of a sold rational structure that serves as a base of self-discovered answers. My question is this, are the Tops and Middles so lacking in intelligence that, collectively, they are not in a position to figure out a viable approach? If they lack such intelligence then what are they doing in the roles of management?

      Let’s see if I can put forward a rational approach. Step 1: convince the people with the power to orchestrate or block change. Step 2: come to an agreement on your desired present (relations with customer, what you wish to be famous for, differentiating yourself, financials…). Step 3: come up with a number of paths that will get you to your desired present. Step 4: evaluate these paths. Step 5: select a course of action that allows you to walk a path and easily switch to another a path if needed. Step 6: share this path with all concerned. Step 7: prepare – gather the people, supplies, tools you will need. Step 8: walk the path…..

      Now, let’s imagine that the Tops and Middles are either lack the intelligence or just cannot be bothered to think and come up with a viable approach. So they hire a wizard with the right template: approach, method, tools and techniques. What almost inevitably happens next? The wizard ends up with the burdening of the change initiative (as he is expected to work magic) and s/he fosters dependency – as it is in the financial interests of the wizard. Further, little actually changes. Why? Because the work of internalising, orchestrating, leading, accepting, embedding changes has to be done by the folks in the organisation. It is the folks in the organisation who have to change their ways of showing up and operating in the organisation.

      Finally, frameworks / methods suppress original questioning and an attuning to the situation as it is occurring. Think sat-nav systems: put in your destination and then slavishly follow its instructions: the sat-nav becomes the master and the driver the instruction following moron. What is the source of innovation? Original questioning leading to original answering of the question.

      I wish you the very best.
      maz

      Allow me to put forth

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  2. Maz,

    When I learnt to drive I was taught to
    – Mirror
    – Signal
    – Manoeuvre

    Now I am older and more experienced I realise that sometimes the sequence is mirror, mirror, signal, manoeuvre and on occasion mirror, signal, mirror, manoeuvre and at least once – when a lorry was heading toward me down the wrong side of a slip road – just manoeuvre and do it quick.

    So I think there is real value in models and templates and approaches, provided that you learn from them rather than sticking to them slavishly.

    James

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    1. Hello James,
      My friend you show up as wise and I find myself to be in absolute agreement with you. Yes, there is value in models, templates, approaches, provided they are used as scaffolding to help you on your path. This means that the tools must always be at the service of a creative intelligence which is attuned to the situation. And which know when to use, discard, modify, tools. Even invent new ones.

      I wish you the very best,
      maz

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      1. Hello James,

        It occurs to me that the process of education that a westerner goes through is a process of getting youngsters to become addicted to tools. What is taught in school if not specific way to approach problems. And specific tools and techniques to solve those problems?

        The end result is an educated human being who excels at calculative thinking. And who has lost sight of any truly original / creative thinking.

        The result is that the educated westerner is great at solving existing problems. He knows the approach to take as he has taken it many times or someone else has and laid down the instructions. And he is great at applying the established tools and techniques.

        Of course, the challenge comes when this educated westerner comes across the new for which there is not a tried and tested approach, tools and techniques. So what does s/he do? Force the new into the shape of the old so as to use his trusted set of tools and techniques.

        Hope that provides some insight for exploration.

        All the best
        maz

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