The wisest words you will ever read on leadership and organisational change?

Making the transition to customer-centricity involves ‘change’

Once the euphoria of being a customer-centric organisation has worn off you have to get to grips with reality: today your organisation is neither designed for nor led nor managed for customer-centricity.  How do you make that transition? If you think conventionally then you will think about change and change management.  And when you are there, you will fall for the spells of change management consultants.

They will pander to your needs and beliefs: they will tell you that with their particularly methodology / tool set you can orchestrate and manage (control) change in your organisation.  Look underneath the hood and their change methodology / tool set is likely to be some variant of the Kubler-Ross grief cycle.  Look deeper into your ‘change management’ consultants and your likely to find that these folks have never held positions of authority nor led any real world organisational change.  The lack the lived experience of what organisational change involves, how it is handled, how it tends to turn out.

I have been involved in organisational change for over 20 years – starting with being ‘parachuted in’ to take charge of a failing motor dealership.  I assert that if you take the traditional ‘change management’ approach then you have built struggle, hardship, resistance and ultimately failure into your change journey.  Before you go down that route I simply wish to share with you some of the wisest words I have ever read on organisational change.  The hallmark of wisdom is that it tends to come out of lived experience and often has a paradoxical aspect to it.  Why?  Because human life is like that: it is not neat and ordered (as in the management textbooks), it is messy, it is paradoxical.  I don’t want you to take my word on that matter, I simply wish to share with you some of the wisest words I have come across on the subject of leadership and organisational change.

Wise words on leadership & organisational change?

“Examining what went wrong at Buffalo altered forever the way I think about change.  Martin Meyerson had the first thing that every effective leader needs – a powerful vision of the way that the organisation should be, a vision he was able to communicate to me and many of his other recruits. But unless a vision is sustained by action, it quickly turns to ashes.

In ways that only later became clear, we undermined the very thing we wanted the most. Our actions and even our style tended to alienate the people who would be most affected by the changes we proposed.  Failing to appreciate the importance to the organisation of the people who are already in it is a classic management mistake, one that new managers and change oriented administrators are especially prone to make……..we acted as if the organisation hadn’t existed until the day we arrived.

There are no clean slates in established organisations.  A new administration cannot play Noah and build the world anew ………… Talk of new beginnings is so much rhetoric – frightening rhetoric to those who suspect that the new signals the end of their careers.  At Buffalo we newcomers disregarded history. But without history, without continuity, there can be no successful change.  A.N. Whitehead said it best: “Every leader, to be effective, must simultaneously adhere to the symbols of change and revision and the symbols of tradition and stability.”

What most of us in organisations really want (and what status, money, and power serve as a currency for) is acceptance, affection, self-esteem.  Institutions are more amenable to change when the self esteem of all members is preserved and enhanced.  Whatever people say, given economic sufficiency, they stay in organisations and feel satisfied in them because they feel competent and valuedChange carries the threat of loss.  When managers remove that threat, people are much freer to identify with the adaptive process and much better equipped to tolerate the high degree of ambiguity that accompanies change.

When I think of Buffalo, I think of that joke “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer is “One, but the light bulb really has to want to change.”  Organisations change themselves when members want to.  You can’t force them to change, even in a Batman cape.”

Warren Bennis writes these words in his book An Invented Life, Reflections on Leadership and Change.  The book really speaks to me and I am enjoying reading it.  If you are in a leadership position and involved in organisational change then I recommend it – it is more a biography than an academic tome that sends you to sleep.  Better still it is based on real life experience – lived experience, rather than theory cooked up in sterile academic towers.

Customer-Centricity: let’s wake up and address the real issue!

Our relationship to reality: the therapist and the patient

Allow me to tell you a story, I promise that you will enjoy it.   Picture a therapist’s consulting room: you have the therapist sitting in in a comfortable chair and the patient sitting in another comfortable chair.  The therapist  has, over many sessions, built up a rapport with the patient.  Today he feels able to discuss the issue at hand and help his patient move on and live well.  Here’s the dialogue:

Therapist: “So, John, am I correct in understanding that you really do believe that you are dead?”

Patient: “Absolutely, I am dead, I died several years ago.”

Therapist: “John, do dead people bleed?”

Patient:  “Don’t be ridiculous, dead people can’t bleed.  They don’t bleed.”

Therapist:  “John, is it ok with you if we did a test?   As you’re dead this test will be easy for you.  I’ m going to come over and cut your hand with a knife to see if you bleed.  Are you ok with that?”

Patient: “Sure go ahead, you’ll find out I’m dead.”

So the therapist takes out a knife and cuts the patients right hand.  Red blood flows – the therapist and the patient look at the blood.  The therapist is delighted, he is savouring his moment of triumph. Let’s get back to the conversation:

Therapist:  “John, I cut your hand and you’re bleeding.  Do you see that you are bleeding?”

Patient:  “Wow, dead people do bleed!”

I, you, we are the patient and you dive into this you will find that the story is reflects a fundamental truth that we are blind to and which when made visible we deny, repress and/or suppress.

The Goldman Sachs resignation letter got me thinking

The Goldman Sachs resignation letter is an internet sensation and it got me thinking about reality and how well we deal with it or not.  We all work in or have worked in organisations.  We know (at an experiential level) the reality of organisations. So, why is this letter a sensation?  It really is not disclosing anything new to us.   We know that the prime directive of big business is to make the numbers no matter what it takes.  Those that make the numbers are hailed as heroes and treated as gods. Those that don’t make the numbers find themselves in the same position as Tesco’s UK chief Richard Brasher who is ‘leaving the company‘ shortly after Tesco announced its first profit warning in decades.

Given this big business context is it surprising that the customer is seen/treated as a wallet to be emptied and the contents transferred into the company’s treasury?  If this was not the case then a handful of companies like Zappos, Zane’s Cycles, USAA, Chick-fil-A… would not stand out.  And all the billions spent by big business on CRM and related Customer initiatives would have delivered customer loyalty and the rewards that go with that.  We know that it hasn’t.

So back to my question, what is the fuss?  Could it be that the  BBC has got it right when it writes:

“Many of us have imagined writing a letter of resignation that shakes our bosses to the core, but few have actually done it, and rarely even then has the letter been read by millions. Greg Smith, who quit Goldman Sachs this week, has realised our fantasy.”

It is my point of view that Greg Smith’s letter is a sensation because it gives voice to our voices and our experiences.  If the resignation had showed up as as one man’s fantasy then it would never had become the sensation it is.  It is became a sensation because it is our fantasy: to tell the truth of our experience, to walk away from the filth that we find ourselves to be mired in, to be noble in our conduct and work for noble causes.

Most of us know that the “Emperor has no clothes” yet few of us the financial security or the courage to say publicly that the Emperor has no clothes. That is why few of us are ‘whistleblowers’, just take a look at the price Linda Almonte has paid for doing the right thing: fired, no other bank would employ her, real struggle to survive – to make ends meet for the last two years or so.  So I totally get that why Greg Smith collected his bonuses before departing,  I believe that Nassim Nicholas Taleb (of Black Swan fame) called this “f**k you money”.  It is only when we don’t have to worry about money that most of us can do the right thing – follow the dictates of our conscience.

What has this got to do with customer-centricity and customer loyalty?

Do you remember my post on good strategy bad strategy (part III – failing to face the problem)?  The key point is that formulating a sound strategy (think back to the story of the therapist and the patient) requires us to acknowledge reality as it is and address the key problem/s that have to be faced.  The question is how good are we at facing reality?  Jack Welch didn’t think at the people at GE were adept at facing reality and so he made it his mission to change that situation:

“Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it to be.” Jack Welch

As I walk around the halls of business and look at / talk with the people walking on Customer initiatives and read the stuff that is written on customer-centricity, customer loyalty, customer service, I find myself getting present to the following:

“You don’t know your ass from a hole in the ground. Anybody who knew their ass from a hole in the ground could stand up and tell me how they know when something’s real.”  Werner Erhard

All the time-money-effort being put into Customer initiatives will continue to be wasted (from the customer loyalty, customer experience perspectives) until and unless we deal with reality: what is so rather than what we pretend is so.  We pretend that the customer matters, that the customer is the king/queen, the master of our hearts and drives our actions.  The reality is that within the current system (they way it really operates) Customers (as fellow human beings) don’t matter.  What really matters is getting our hands on customers wallets – quickly, easily, repeatedly and taking out as much money as we can and transferring it into the company treasury.   The problem is that digital technologies and social media have made it that much harder to do that.  

We have a choice to make.  We can stick with the existing context (misrepresentation, manipulation, extraction, greed, me, me, me),  relating to these customers as muppets and embracing anyone who promises the latest ‘shiny object’ that will allow us to get the better of our customers. Or we can choose to operate from a radically different context.

I assert that we need to get real.  The days of fooling and fleecing customers easily and cheaply have come to an end. In my last post, I pointed out that the IBM study suggested that there is a social transformation is in progress and big business has to get with that.  Specifically, we have to go from talking about caring for our customers to actually caring for our customers.  It is only when we connect with ‘our heart and what is noble’  can we rule out anything and everything that contributes to “bad profits”, making money at the expense of the customer.  Specifically, that means:

  • being truthful and providing the complete picture in our marketing;
  • designing, making, source quality products – quality as perceived through the eyes of the people who will be using these products;
  • matching the right products to the right customers, refusing to sell products that enrich us at the expense of our customers;
  • ensuring that the contract between the customer and the company is written in plain English and is fair to both parties;
  • investing  in the service dimension of the customer experience as opposed to push relentlessly to reduce the costs associated with serving customers, whether that is in the retail store, the call-centre, the logistics function or in billing;
  • getting the balance right between human and digital channels / interfaces such that, taken as a whole, these interfaces simplify and enrich the life of our customers.

What do you think?  I’d love to hear your point of view.  Better, still I’d love for you to share your lived experience.  Are you up for that?

Final words

Before I, you, we get righteous about the people at Goldman Sachs (or any other organisation eg. News International) it is worth getting present to the fact that it is only because I, you, we participate in the current system that allows this morally bankrupt and socially evil system continues to operate. Don’t believe me?  Think you are not responsible for what is so?  I invite you to read this piece – warning, it is not for the faint hearted.   I thank you for your listening.



Customer-Centricity: what does it take to make the transition to a customer-centric business?

What is our defining feature, our magnificence?

We are awesome.  We, individually as an organism and collectively as a species, are best signified as “that whose defining characteristic is the capacity to imagine possibilities and convert these possibilities to reality‘.  Yes, we are an organism that excels in listening to and telling Story.  Yes, we are an automatic meaning making machine.  And for me the distinguishing feature, the crowning glory, the magnificence of us is our ability / our deftness at converting a vision, a dream, a possibility in our mind into what is so in the world.

Allow me to give you specific examples of what I am talking about.  Think about the American Declaration of Independence and what resulted when this is put into the world.   Would there be a USA without this declaration?  Think about Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, vision, declaration, stand.  Think about Gandhi and his declaration that India will be free. Think about JFK’s “Man on the Moon” bold vision, challenge and address to congress.

Why doesn’t the ‘world work’?

Why doesn’t the ‘world work’ such that no-one is excluded?  Is that too abstract, too philosophical?  OK, let me make it simpler by asking the question:  why is it so that many of our fellow human beings live in hunger and die of hunger?  Do we lack the know how? No.  Do we lack the capacity, the resources, to feed our hungry fellow human beings?  No.  So why are our fellow human beings dying?  Look into this and you might come to the conclusion, that whilst many of us are inspired at the thought of a world in which every one of us has enough to eat (none of us starve), one or both of the following is present:

  • We simply cannot conceive of possibility of an Earth where all of us are well fed – this simply occurs as ridiculous to us; and/or
  • It is OK by us for our fellow human beings to starve as long as we do not have to ‘see’ it, face it, experience it.

I take no credit for this insight.  It rightly belong to an unacknowledged American genius (now living in exile) called Werner Erhard.  He got and articulated this position over 30+ years ago.  You might be wondering what this has to do with organisations and customer-centricity in particular.  Let’s deal with that – the foundation is in place to have that conversation.

Why is it that only a handful of big businesses have made the transition to being customer-centric?

What are the obstacles to making the transition to customer-centricity?  Is it lack of know how?  Is it the lack of capacity / resources?  Before you come to a conclusion, consider the following:

  • A ‘handful’ of poorly armed, poorly trained (militarily), yet powerfully motivated colonists defeated the military might and political power of the worlds’ greatest empire (the British empire);
  • A man (Gandhi) in a loincloth took on the world greatest empire and after many years of sacrifice / struggle he won, the empire capitulated;
  • One man’s speech (“I have a dream”) dramatically changed the social landscape of many millions of Americans despite the entrenched legacy of slavery;
  • One man (JFK) rallied a nation and put a man on the moon.

I assert that only a handful of companies have made the transition to being customer-centric because of one or both of the following:

  • Tops do not believe that if they look after their customers, their customers, will in return, look after them; and/or
  • It is perfectly OK for the business to continue as is (product/sales centric) because the business is doing just fine as it is.

Lets listen to what the CEO of O2 shares about their transition to customer-centricity

One of the few big companies, that I know of in the UK, that has made that transition is O2 (telco).  So it might just be worth taking a look at Ronan Dunne, the CEO, says:

Our philosophy was: create an enduring relationship.  How do you do that? You build trust. You take away the scams, the small print that people think is unfair.  You make your tariffing more transparent and simpler so that all the weasel is gone, so what you see is what you get…..To build a trust relationship with your customers you have to be really clear in your communication.  You have to be bold to change the rules of the game. You have to take risks.

By introducing Simplicity and Fair Deal, we were essentially writing a £500 million cheque against our P&L.

The thing that got us through those early days was…we had a very tough and open and honest debate as a board.  We finished the conversation by saying we may not be able to fully analyse this as a business case on a few PowerPoint slides, but we all believe that it is the right thing to do……

We looked each other in the eye as a team – finance, marketing, sales, the operation side – and said, ‘Do we, or do we not, believe this?‘  And as a team we absolutely signed up.  As a result every tough conversation we had subsequently was in the context of ‘If we believe doing the right thing for the customers is ultimately the most profitable business model, have we solved this particular issue?’ 

If each time we had a problem we had argued about it without the benefit of that context then it would have all fallen apart.  That basic premise of the long term sustainable profitability of the business being underpinned by creating a differentiating customer experience was the rock on which we built the brand.”

I draw your attention to the following

The O2 Tops created the possibility of being customer-centric AND believed that this was the right thing to do.  Why?  Because there was no statistical evidence, in the real world, that this was the right thing to do.  The outcome of their actions was uncertain, undetermined – that is the only time we need beliefs, else beliefs are superfluous.

The access to starting the customer-centric journey was boldness, the willingness to take risks. The O2 Board (the Tops) took a risk – a potential hit of £500m against their P&L.

The entire O2 Board discussed the matter at hand and each Board member signed up voluntarily.

Keeping the context (‘If we believe doing the right thing for customers is ultimately the most profitable business model…’) alive allowed the O2 Tops to make the difficult decisions without rupturing their relational bonds (without destroying their working relationship with one another)

And finally

The source of the material on O2 is the book BOLD by Shaun Smith and Andy Milligan.

Want to prosper in the ‘age of the customer’? Here’s the formula you’ve been looking for

Some of the people who listen to my speaking have been kind enough to tell me that my posts are too long and can be hard to get.  OK, I get where you are coming from.  Here is a post for those of us who like the short sharp Seth Godin type post.

What is the formula for business success?

“He who does the best job of creating and communicating the most VALUE for the customer wins.”   maz iqbal

What has changed in the ‘age of the customer’?

“The Customer Experience is now a critical component of creating and communicating value.”   maz iqbal

What is the ONE thing that matters and which is not being addressed?

The human touch – genuine caring for the customer as a fellow human being first and a wallet second is missing.  Customers prefer to do business with those that ooze Warmth and demonstrate Competence. Competence is necessary yet not enough.” maz iqbal

What is the hallmark of customer-centricity as seen through the customer’s eyes?

..if it ever comes to a choice between what is right for the company and what is right for the customer you will always choose and put the customer first.”  Prof. M. Sawhney

Customer Experience: are you sitting at the right table?

The politics of experience: burn this quote into your heart/mind

“We cannot be deceived.  Men can and do destroy the humanity of other men, and the condition of this possibility is that we are interdependent.  We are not self contained monads producing no effects on each other except our reflections.  We are both acted upon, changed for good or ill, by other men; and we are agents who act upon others to affect them in different ways.  Each of us is the other to the other.  Man is a patient-agent, agent-patient, interexperiencing and interacting with his fellows.”  RD Laing, The Politics of Experience

I will come back to this quote later in this post, right now just burn it into your heart/mind.

What is the most important decision you make?

Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh is a great read.  It is littered with nuggets of gold if you have the ears to listen to what Tony writes.  One of the most valuable nuggets of gold is that it really matters what table you sit at.  If you study the work of Michael Porter you will find the same.  They are both talking about the same thing just using different languages.

What do I mean when I say that it really matters what table you sit it.  I am pointing out that one of the most important, if not the most important decisions, is what table to sit at. This is of no importance if your interest is operational effectiveness. If, on the other hand, you see yourself as a strategist (which is what I declare myself to be) then it is essential that you get to grips with this.  Let’s explore this through the eyes of Tony Hsieh and Michael Porter.

In Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsieh writes:

“In a poker room in a casino, there are usually many different choices of tables.  Each table has different stakes, different players, and different dynamics that change as the players come and go, and as players get excited, upset or tired. 

I learned that the most important decision I could make was which table to sit at.  This included knowing when to change tables……. an experienced player can make ten times as much money sitting at a table with nine mediocre players who are tired and have a lot of chips compared with sitting at a table with nine really good players who are focussed and don’t have that many chips …..

In business, one of the most important decisions….. is what business to be in. It doesn’t matter how flawlessly a business is executed if it is the wrong business.…..”

What does Michael Porter – the man who invented the field of strategy – have to say?  He says that the source of superior performance can be attributed to the following two factors:

  • the structure of the industry in which which the game of business is being played and competition taking place; and
  • the company’s relative position within its industry.

If you look at financial returns then you will find that the returns of players (as a whole)  in the technology industry have been consistently at the top.  If however you look at players as a whole in the US airline industry then the financial returns have consistently towards the bottom of the league.  That is due to the structure of these industries.  Yet, even in the airline industry, Southwest Airlines has made super returns because of its relative position – which has come about because of its consistent and prolonged commitment to its strategy.

Customer Experience: which table to sit at?

So what are the tables (to sit at) in the fashionable restaurant called “Chez  Customer Experience”?   Lets take a look:

  • Social media – being pushed hard by the ‘social gurus’;
  • Mobile (smartphones and tablets) – becoming increasingly prominent and sexy;
  • Big data & analytics – being pushed hard by vendors who have spent a fortune on developing / buying the software;
  • Ecommerce and multi-channel integration – especially for offline retailers who face a blood bath;
  • Marketing automation – integrating marketing resource management (assets), analytics and campaign management;
  • Customer Services – cost reduction through automation, self-service, six sigma and outsourcing’; and
  • Content marketing – recognition that we live in a world that you have to earn attention by being useful.

Now if we go back to where we started, the question is this: which table/s should you sit at?  More specifically: if you want to lead / differentiate yourself / build that personal connection with your target customers then what table/s should you sit at?   Have you chosen your favourite/s?  OK, let’s move on and discuss a table that for the most part is empty – there are plenty of chairs available at this table.

The table of humanity: it is vacant and represents a great opportunity

When I look at and play in the domain of Customer Experience I am present to a cosmic joke being played out.  What am I saying?  I am saying that it strikes me that most of the players involved in the game of Customer Experience have little or no understanding of human beings as human beings.  They have little understanding of experience as experience and the role it plays in human living.  Please notice that I am not saying experience as theory, as talk, as writing about it!  I am being specific: experience as experience and the experience of interexperiencing which is the ground of human existence.

I grant that many Customer Experience (Gurus, Practitioners, Students)  might be great at process design, six sigma, implementing technology, mining data, capturing the VoC, customer journey mapping etc.  I do not grant that most of these people naturally like being with people, learning from/about people, being of service to people.  Furthermore, I assert that most business folks are blind to people as social beings who are always immersed in relationship and thus interexperiencing.  Which is why they do not see the table that matters the most when it comes to crafting a great experience and cultivating a person emotional connection with customers that shows up as customer loyalty.

To be 100% clear I am advocating that if you are serious about Customer Service / Customer Experience / Customer Loyalty / Customer-Centricity then you (and your entire organisation) play full out at the table called HUMANITY.  Why?  It is the most powerful differentiator there is.    I am going to share a profound quote with you from someone who spent a lifetime in intimate contact / conversation with people and as such gets human beings as human beings.  My question is do you have the ‘ears’ to listen/get what he is saying?  Back to the quote I started this post with:

“We cannot be deceived.  Men can and do destroy the humanity of other men, and the condition of this possibility is that we are interdependent.  We are not self contained monads producing no effects on each other except our reflections.  We are both acted upon, changed for good or ill, by other men; and we are agents who act upon others to affect them in different ways.  Each of us is the other to the other.  Man is a patient-agent, agent-patient, interexperiencing and interacting with his fellows.”  RD Laing, The Politics of Experience

We live in an age where we have and continue to destroy the humanity of other men – our customers, our colleagues, our suppliers, our partners?  How do we do that?  Simple, in the game of business we treat people as objects that exist to create dollars; Martin Buber described this as the “I-it” orientation as opposed to the “I-Thou” orientation.

What is the key takeaway of this post?

 We live in an age where customers rave appreciate employees who appreciate customers – customers are fellow flesh and blood human beings.    That should tell you all that you need to know. Just in case you don’t get it then let me spell it out as I see it.  We experience ourselves living in an age of inhumanity.  Many people working in the Customer Experience field are increasing that inhumanity whether they realise it or not.  That means that more and more organisation show up in our worlds as being inhuman.  Which in turn means that the field is wide open to play at the table that matters and which is practically empty: the table called Humanity.  Don’t believe this then just take a look at Zappos – they are not simply selling, they are delivering happiness!  Or think of USAA, SouthWest Airlines or Rackspace.

If you are still not with me then I leave you with the following statement:

Service had become “a backoffice cost center, focused on reducing expenses and executing transactions.  We were effective and efficient… but we were missing an opportunity to establish bonds with [our customers] and build more meaningful relationships.”   Jim Bush, Executive, American Express

What he is saying is that American Express decided to put Humanity back into the game of service after the engineers drove it out with their relentless focus on effectiveness and efficiency.  Put differently, as a customer, as a fellow human being, effectiveness and efficiency only matter if you turn up in my world as caring – as humane.

Disagree with me?  Please share your views I am happy to listen and learn.