Is this the most serious misunderstanding plaguing customer-centricity?

Misunderstanding, reality and narrative

There are so many misunderstandings around customer-centricity that it is hard for me to know where to start.  In this post, I want to deal with a particularly dangerous and widespread misunderstanding.  Some of you have led yourself to that misunderstanding after reading my last post on customer-centricity.  Before I deal with this misunderstanding I want to draw your attention to the following:

Reality is amenable to and readily supports any narrative that we place on it.  Once upon a time the narrative was the earth is flat.  Later the narrative changed to the world is round.  Once upon a time there were witches in the world, now, at least in the West, there are no witches.  For a little while the narrative was almost all of the DNA in the human genome was junk DNA.  Today the narrative is that vast majority of so called ‘junk DNA’ is essential to and involved in key biochemical processes.  I hope you get what I  am getting at.

No single definition and/or ‘understanding’ of customer-centricity will exhaust customer-centricity.   Put differently, customer-centricity seems so obvious until you really grapple with it.  And when you grapple with it all kinds of stuff shows up – some of it rather surprising.  Furthermore, what shows up as customer-centric in one context may not show up as customer-centric another context.

With that out of the way and the context set, lets grapple with this misunderstanding.

To be customer-centric you have to be nice and give you customers what they are asking for

Far too many people confuse customer-centricity with doing what the customer wants, giving the customer what he wants, and being ‘nice’. Some go further and equate customer-centricity with being a patsy, a pushover. I say this is the most serious misunderstanding plaguing customer-centricity. 

Why is it so dangerous?  First, there are the people who understand customer-centricity this way and for them it shows up as unrealistic and distasteful.  Given this way of understanding customer-centricity they dismiss it and/or want nothing to do with it.  Second, there are a different group of people who speak and act as if customer-centricity is as simple as giving the customer whatever he asks for.

Customer-Centricity is neither this simple nor this simplistic

To both of these groups of people I say that you are mistaken.  You’re mistaken, badly mistaken.  Customer-centricity is neither that simple nor that simplistic.

I say that being customer-centric is a stand that you take and not a fixed set of behaviours.  What kind of stand am I talking about?  The kind of stand that says that the only acceptable profit is that made by creating genuine value for customers.  It means letting go of existing policies and practices that enrich the company at the expense of customers  – ‘bad profits’. Taking the customer-centric stand is not possible without courage.  The kind of courage Tony Hsieh and the Zappos management team showed when the business was in deep trouble financially and they gave up a lucrative source of revenue, profits and cash because it did not fit with their vision and stand to be the brand renowned for great customer service.

I say that being customer-centric is as much about being proactive in coming up with new products/services/experiences that you believe will create value for customers as it is about reacting to what customers say/ask for.  As I write this Apple/Steve Jobs/iPod/iTunes/iPhone/iPad come to mind immediately.  Or think of Amazon, ebooks and the Kindle.

I say that being customer-centric is as much about influencing/persuading customers as it is listening to/obeying customers.  Yes, there is a role for the right advertising, marketing and selling.  Customers are human beings and they do not necessarily know what is best for them.  Even if they do know, customers often do not do what is best for their well-being.  This is where you can use insights into the human functioning to come up with a design that nudges the customer towards the right behaviour.  It is also where something more forceful than a nudge can be necessary.  Again I cannot help but think about how Jobs handled the antenna/signal reception issue around the iPhone.  Or think about how Zappos persuaded shoe buyers that it was OK to buy shoes online without trying them on.

I say that customer-centricity only makes sense in a particular context and as such being customer-centric requires a “yes” when it is appropriate to say “yes” and a “no” when it is appropriate to say “no”.  This point was the key point made by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss in their book Uncommon Service.  As they say “you have to be bad in the service of good”.  They talk at some length about Commerce Bank: to be great at convenience and service Commerce Bank chose to only offer one banking product (checking account) and paid the worst rates of any bank in the market place.   Look, if you turn up at my Mercedes dealership and want to pay Ford prices then the most ‘customer-centric’ behaviour is for me to drive you to the nearest Ford dealership!  Furthermore, sometimes a “no” is simply in the best interests of your customer even if he does not know it.  This was the point I was making in this earlier post.

I say a lot.  What do you say? If you the situation at hand differently to me then speak up and share your understanding.

Ultimately all the customer-centric talk comes down to this ONE question

When it comes to customer-centricity there is only ONE question

If you grapple with the Customer stuff for long enough you get past all the surface issues – data, CRM systems, processes, metrics, people etc- and see that it all comes down to one question:

“Are you ready to sacrifice short-term gains from your customers (‘bad profits’) for the sake of long-term relationships which some believe cannot be achieved?”

Yes, sacrifice is required and there are no guarantees.

How would you answer this question if you were the CEO?

If you look deeper at this question you will find that as the CEO (or Board of Directors) you are being asked to:

  • Give up marketing and sales practices where you mislead-manipulate-overpromise and ultimately disappoint customers. And instead be straight with your customers – set clear expectations that you can fulfill.  This is almost certainly going to cut your revenues and  your market share because your competitors are going to continue ‘fleecing’ customers – at least in the short-term;
  • Spend money to fix what is broken or is simply missing and thus gets in the way of you delivering a good/great customer experience.  This is likely to need capital investment and almost certainly going to increase your operating costs and further cut your short-term profit;
  • Embrace that you do not know if this investment will pay for itself, when it will pay for itself and how much the payback will be;
  • Be willing to instigate-face-deal with plenty of turmoil as you make major structural changes to your house (‘organisation) whilst you and your family (your people) live in it; and
  • If you are the ‘average’ CEO of publicly listed company then the ‘short term’ is likely to be most, if not the entire length, of your tenure as CEO of this organisation.

If you were the CEO how would you react when faced with that proposal?  Now you know why there are so few ‘Bold’ organisations in Shaun Smith’s latest book.

Looking at customer loyalty through the lens of ‘attachment theory’

If you take a look at attachment theory (John Bowlby, Harry Harlow) you find that the child’s attachment drive to the mother needs to be reciprocated by the mother’s care giving system.  What does that mean?

Put bluntly I, the customer, am likely to attach to you (‘customer loyalty’) if and only if I am confident that you will take care of me and not exploit me.  That is to say that you are a ‘secure base’ for me:  I can count on you when I need you.  And that is exactly what most customers cannot do with most companies.  Why?  Because the Tops within these companies are not ready to sacrifice short-term gains  for the sake of long-term relationships which some believe cannot be attained. And that is the underlying reason behind the failure of the bulk of Customer projects to deliver loyal customers.

6 reasons why companies continue to struggle with customer centricity

I can think of six reasons why many publicly quoted companies continue to make slow, painful, progress towards customer centricity:

  • They are publicly listed enterprises and they are expected to be shareholder centric not customer centric;
  • They make a significant part of their revenues and profits at the expense of their customers and are not willing to forgo the practices that deliver these ‘bad profits’;
  • They are designed to make and sell standard products not to create and deliver customer experiences;
  • They are structured into silos and each silo has its own agenda, priorities and metrics that makes it rather difficult to play the joined up game of customer experience;
  • The Tops are totally divorced from the day to day reality of the way that the organisation works (just watch Undercover Boss); and
  • They seem to believe that customer centricity lies in the realm of the marketing function rather than a total transformation in business philosophy, corporate strategy, management mindset and organisational design.

What do you think?

2011: what is likely to stay the same?

Right now there are lots of people putting forward there views on what will be hot /new / different in 2011.  As I do not have a crystal ball and because I believe in the fundamentals, I am going to focus on the key themes that are not going to change in 2011.

Customer will continue using trusted resources to find information and make decisions

Customers live in a world that is full of suppliers, brands, products and services.  Choosing between them is difficult and there is always the concern around making the right choice.  So for low consideration products (the basics of food, drink, utilities, retail banking..) customers will simply continue using the brands that they use today. Some customers will continue to be tempted by ‘specials’ – to try other products, other brands, other suppliers.

For high consideration purchases, customers will turn to trusted sources: the internet, Google search, social network, other customers and independent sources.  Customers will particularly value trusted resources that take out or cut the hassle associated with doing all the research and coming to a decision.

Companies will continue to shoot themselves in the foot as the content and tools are often created by marketing.  And too many marketers are disconnected from the real lives of customers and their real needs.  Too often the need for spin outweighs the need to provide useful, informative, honest content.

Customers will continue to have the same needs around products

Most customers will continue to look for products that are easy to understand, easy to set-up, easy to use and which work as they expect them to work.  Some customers will pay a premium for products that are novel, beautiful and/or well designed.

Many products will fail to live up to customer expectations either because the marketing communications are misleading, or the product has not been well designed or because the customer has unrealistic expectations.  And this will result in calls into the contact centre and negative comments offline and online.

Customers will continue to look for, be attracted to, special offers

Direct marketers are the masters of special offers – they know that the right offers will drive purchases.  Human beings are drawn to all kinds of  special offers.  The offer can be around membership of an exclusive club, or a special edition product or simply one of a price discount.

Businesses will continue to offer attractive ‘specials’ to get new customers.  In the process they will continue to cut loyalty from existing customers and thus encourage them to move to competitors to get their special offers.

Customers will continue to look for and value good service

Customers live in a complex world where they have a lot more to juggle and less time to do it; a world where choosing the right products and solutions can be a tricky and time consuming task; a world where they need help in setting up and using products effectively.  For example, one time you could just go and buy a tv, try doing that now with the latest HD tvs.

As a result customers will continue to cry out for good service in the form of correct and informative marketing material, customer centred sales advice, convenient product delivery, ease of product set-up and use, accurate billing, easy access to the right people in the company to deal with problems and issue and responsive caring customer service.

Many companies will continue to give less than good service because of the internal, silo centred, efficiency oriented metrics, processes and culture.

Companies will continue to focus on the shiny new stuff and neglect the basics

Time and again companies are attracted to the shiny new stuff, the silver bullets, the miracle cures etc.  Social media, mobile, location-based services, group buying (Groupon), customer experience – are examples of the latest shiny objects

In the process, companies will neglect the basics such as making good easy to use products, easy to use websites, improving the delivery process so you don’t have to take a full day off work, sorting out issues that prevent sales and customer service staff delivering the kind of service that customers expect etc. Here is an example of neglecting the basics: Toyota Just Doesn’t Get It

Companies will continue to focus on the sell side of the business at the expense of the service side

The majority of companies will continue to focus their best people and the bulk of their money on the areas of the business that generate or promise to generate revenue. Revenue and market share growth are the top priorities of the C-suite in most companies.

These companies will also continue to spend money on products and services that promise to cut operating costs – thus boosting profits.  That means more investments in technology and less in people – especially those that actually interact with and serve customers.

It also means that companies will continue to focus on getting new customers than on keep existing customers through good service and fair treatment. This is partly because the it is easy to show the return on getting customer and difficult to show the return on retaining customers.

Companies will continue not to embrace and make effective use of social technologies

The philosophy – transparency, openness, interaction, connectivity, sharing, participation, co-creation etc – of social is fundamentally at odds with the command and control philosophy that is at the heart of almost all businesses.  The powerful love to exercise power – this applies to all kinds of institutions including corporations.  And it applies to the C-suite executives.

This clash of idealogies and operating practices will stop the majority of companies from harvesting the true promise of social technologies:  transforming the way that work is done – collaboratively between employees, customers, suppliers, partner etc – within the enterprise.

Instead companies  will continue to dabble in social media treating this as simply another marketing and customer research channel.  Does this remind you how digital marketing and ecommerce operations were treated?  And how some are still treated today?

Companies will continue to talk about innovation and customer experience tranformation and yet fail to deliver

Whilst every company wants to the fruits of innovation very few are willing to go through the birthing process and experience the pains of giving birth to these innovations.

It is no easy matter to make the silo’s work together.  It is no easy matter to change the technology infrastructure – most companies still do not have a single customer view despite the mountains of ink on that subject over the last ten years.  It is no easy matter to change the culture of the company.  It is no easy matter to give up the practices that are resulting in ‘bad profits’ and recapture these profits by creating products and services that customers value.  And there is absolutely no incentive when you are the category leader or the market is dominated by up to four big companies.

The task of category level innovation will continue to fall on companies that specialise in this (e.g. Apple, Virgin) or newcomers that have no investment in the existing way of doing things (e.g. Metro Bank, Groupon).