Customer-Centricity: how to become customer-centric in one easy step

If you listen to the pundits then customer-centricity involves a complete transformation of your business

Reading the mountain of ink that has been written on all things Customer (strategy, insight, experience, service, CRM) one would be forgiven for concluding that it is a difficult if not impossible task for a large organisation to become customer centred.  You have to come up with a great strategy, to segment your customer base, to work out LTV, to build propensity models, to implement complex CRM systems, re-engineer processes, overhaul the call centre and employ an army of change specialists to get the culture change you want. But is it that hard?

What lies at the heart of the customer-centric orientation?

Jonathan Field spelled that out last year in one of his blog posts:

“…..you’ll solve most of your business problems by spending more energy figuring out how to best understand your customers’ lives, psyches and challenges, then working to solve your customers problems and deliver delight to their doorsteps.”

That is the philosophy behind customer-centricity. Don’t like the word philosophy then call it the guiding doctrine or the core guiding policy.  But can you short circuit this process (avoid all the time, effort and cost in understanding your customers) and get there quicker?  Yes you can, it is really easy to act now – today.

How to become customer-centric in one easy step

If you really want to become customer centric then simply give up self-serving category practices that exploit the customer rather than build goodwill with the customer. What do I mean?  Allow me to give you example of self-serving, exploitative, industry practices:

  • mobile network operators deliberately make their pricing plan complex so that it is difficult for customers to compare apples with apples and also because the operators make more money as customers typically end up on more expensive plans.
  • supermarkets who deliberately put the milk and eggs at the back of the store so as to force customers to walk past tempting goods and thus make impulse purchases that they never intended to make when they first came in the store.
  • financial services providers that deliberately make their plans/policies confusing using jargon that customers do not understand, putting in place all kinds of loopholes that they can use to avoid paying out and finally wrapping it all up in legal terminology that few of us will ever understand.
  • utilities that deliberately make their tariff complex and are swift increase price because wholesale prices go up but then take their time lowering prices when wholesale prices drop.
  • financial services providers that sell products that are worthless – the PPI scandal is a great example of an issue where the red flagged was raised back in 1998 and then it took another 13 years for the banks to concede but only when the courts ruled against them.
  • software companies that make all kinds of wonderful sounding claims (business and technical) some of which are a stretch of the creative imagination and many of which will be hard to turn into reality.
  • budget airlines force customers to ‘uncheck’ the insurance option twice.  Why?  Because it makes more money for the budget airlines.

You might think that I am picking on these industries.  I am not.  I am well aware that every industry has self-serving category practices (that are considered ‘business as usual’ by all the players in that industry) that at minimum make life hard for customers and at worst exploit the customers.  So what does it take to give up these category practices?  Nothing – really it takes nothing, you can stop right now.  Yet, in practice it takes consumer watchdogs, regulatory bodies and often the courts.  Let’s just take a look at the utilities industry as it is in the news.

British Gas says it will be simplifying tariffs

Ofgem – the gas and electricity regulatory in the UK – has recently been piling up the pressure on the industry players. After making more hushed noises Ofgem conducted a comprehensive review concluding that the energy companies are making excessive profits and that they have to change their ways starting with their tariffs – make them simpler to understand and compare.  Well Ofgem came out and said this, the industry players did not like it one little bit and accused Ofgem of getting its facts wrong – or of misinterpreting the data.  Looks like the Tops in British Gas have changed their minds.

I have been listening to Jeremy Paxman (“JP) interviewing Phil Bently (“PB”) the MD of British Gas and here are the highlights:

  • “There are too many tariffs – 544 tariffs to choose from from six or so big energy players” – PB;
  • “Consumer find it hard to compare tariff, chose tariffs and understand how to save money” – PB;
  • “As an industry we should put our hands up and say we should be doing more to help” – PB;
  • “We have not made it easy” – PB;
  • JP shows a graph that compares the consumer bill against wholesale prices and asserts that whilst wholesale prices have gone down bills have not;
  • PB makes the argument that wholesale prices are only one part of the cost base;
  • “the whole point is simplifying tariffs, giving customers choice, giving them transparency..” – PB

If you want to listen to the interview or read the article click here.

My take on this

It is easy to become customer-centric by ditching self-serving category practices that exploit customers.  Yet, it is not in the interest of the Tops nor of the system that they play in to do that.  Why?  Because it hits revenues and profits and the name of the game is to maximise revenues and profits by legal and sometime illegal means.

When industries are locked into certain structures it requires a powerful outsider to come in and disrupt the status quo.  That outsider can be a regulator like Ofgem, it can also be another business that is not invested in the status quo.  Apple comes to mind (music, phones), Virgin comes to mind, Salesforce.com comes to mind and so does Skype.

When Tops (and companies) who have been taking customers for a merry ride (and are only changing their ways because of the regulator) talk about transparency take this with a pinch of salt. Why?  Read one of my earlier posts that deals with transparency.

The first step in changing your ways is to be honest and say it like it really is – think Domino’s Pizza and their admission about the quality of their pizzas and what they were going to do about that.

Being “authentic about your inauthenticity” is an essential step and yet few of us have the courage to take that step especially if you are one of the Tops – Gerald Ratner and his fate may be stopping many.


7 lessons in service design

Category practice and company policies matter yet they are not enough

More than once I have advocated that companies must change category practices and company policies so that these take into account the needs/wants of customers.  Put differently, each category practice and company policies should be listed and then examined in terms of impact on the customer.  Does this practice / policy create benefits or costs for the customer?  How can we increase the benefit and reduce costs?  By ‘costs’ I mean costs in terms of effort, convenience, price, cost of ownership etc.  However that is not enough: you have to purposefully design processes that support these practices and policies by delivering the right customer experience

Right policy, poor process, customer experience

Is it possible to put in place a policy that is designed to protect your customers and yet have a process that ends up irritating your customers?  Yes, it is common – allow me to share my story with you.

Recently I wrote about how hard it was for me to move money from one account to another.  If you read that post then you will know that by thumbing through my file I was able to find my e-banking ID and thus transfer a large sum of money (around £50k) from a savings account to my current account.  Once this money ended up in my current account I needed to move it to its end destination: my sister’s account.  So I logged into my e-banking account and attempted the transfer.  I was not expecting any problem yet I met one.  The system would not let me: I simply got a message on the screen telling me that I had exceeded the withdrawal limit.  No other information was provided e.g. what the withdrawal limit is or who exactly to call and which number to call.

So I called Customer Services number and ended up talking to a customer services agent.  He took me through all the usual security checks.  When I told him of my issue he started asking me all kinds of questions – questions that only someone who is the account holder and has access to the bank statements can answer.  Once he was confident that I was the person who I was claiming, he told me that he could not help me.  He was powerless: he had to get  hold of the specialist team and get them to authorise the transfer.  So he took the details of my sister’s account and verified those with me, patiently, to make sure that he had the correct details.  Then he got on the line to the specialist team.  After waiting some 10+ minutes he told me that he could not help me because this specialist team had clocked off at 9pm and were not available.  He apologised and told me that he had entered all my details into the system and asked me to ring in the next day. On hanging up I noticed that I had been on the phone for 30+ minutes.

The next day I rang Customer Services and went through exactly the same drill.  I had to replay almost word for word the conversation that I had the previous day – this CSA claimed that the previous CSA had not left any record of the previous conversation.  Finally, he hit the phone to speak to the specialist team.  After about 5 – 10 minutes he came back and told me that the specialist team had declined to do the transfer and that  should go to the local branch.  When I asked why he simply told me that the specialist team had told him that it looked suspicious.  I was not at all happy yet the rational part of me understood that the bank was indirectly acting in my interest.  Looking at my watch I noticed that I had been on the phone for 20+ minutes.

Then I headed to the local branch and made my request for the fourth time. The cashier was polite and helpful.  She took copies of various personal documents and told me that it was going to take some time. In total I had spent another 30+minutes in the branch.  And when I left I resolved to move to another bank which I fully intend to do.

So whilst I totally get that Santander’s policy of being prudent and preventing fraud is commendable I cannot help but think and feel that their process is a poor one. I’d go further and say that Santander does not have a process for the kind of scenario that I faced:  I cannot believe that any sane person would have designed the process to be this wasteful.

7 lessons in service design

Communicate the need for / benefits of the policy to the customer.  At no time did anyone at Santander explain why I was not able to withdraw money via e-banking or via telephone.  No-one told me that they were doing this to ensure that a fraud was not taking place.  Or that this policy was necessary to comply with money laundering legislation.   If Santander had done this then I would have been more understanding: most of us are reasonable human beings and allow organisations leeway when we know they are acting in our interest or having to comply with the law.

Take ownership of the customer problem.  No-one at Santander took ownership of my problem: the e-banking folks did not; the Customer Service folks did not; the ‘specialist team’ did not – they did not even speak to me.  The cashier had to take ownership of my problem because I was there right in front of her and the rest of the Santander system had ‘let me down’.    All the way through the process I felt that I was ‘battling my way through Santander’ to get something done that mattered to me and Santander were simply indifferent to my plight.

Take the opportunity to educate the customer.  When I headed to the local branch I assumed that I would need several identity papers, bank statements etc.  No-one at Santander took the time to tell me what exactly I would need.  Nor did anyone educate me for the next time e.g. “Next time you decide to move a large sum of money then it is best to do …….. and avoid ………”

Strive to solve the problem where it starts.  At the e-banking stage (when my transfer was declined) Santander could have provided me with a chat facility and directed to the specialist team.  Or Santander could have simply told me to go the branch.  Either of these approached would have cut out wasted time and effort on the phone to Customer Services who simply are not in a position to help.

Put the right people in touch with the customer.  What value did the Customer Services agents add?  None.  When it comes to complex processes that require specialists these agents are simply non-value added relays.  Furthermore they are likely to make mistakes.   The implication is that once you have identified that the case is complex then the call should be routed directly to the specialist team to take care of.  First line, second line and third line thinking is deeply flawed especially as customers are taking care of the easy stuff themselves via self-service and so the demand that falls on contact centres tends to be the more complex stuff which requires specialists.

Design your process to minimise cycle-time.  If you want to compete on the customer experience then you should design your processes to minimise the customer’s cycle time – from need to resolution.  A focus on cycle time will force you to deal with activities and hand-offs that eat the customer’s time.

In complex organisation x-functional co-ordination is required.  When you let various teams within the organisation do their stuff then they will do what is in their best interests.  The result is that the end to end process is likely to be wasteful for the organisation and for the customer.  Furthermore, the waste will typically end up downstream usually in Customer Services or the retail branches.  The only way to get around this issue is to look at processes from end to end (customer perspective) and that means cross functional co-ordination.  If no-one else is playing that role then the Customer Experience team should take on that role.

And finally

CRM systems constituting the ‘organisational memory’ sound excellent.  In practice they are pretty much useless as organisational memory. Why?  Because of the way the real world works. What do I mean?

First, the CSA’s have only so much time to handle and wrap up calls.  That means they end up inputting the bare minimum into the systems.  And usually that bare minimum is not that useful.  If you don’t believe me then go and work in call centres for a little while and see with your own eyes how things work.  Second, the more complex the call the more useless the CRM system is.  Why?  Because it simply takes too long for a CSA to read through the history.  In that situation it is much quicker for both parties if the customer spells out the situation.  So that is another bit of the ‘sales story’ around CRM systems that does not hold up in the real world.