Customer Centricity: A Sunday Morning Religion?

It occurs to me that customer-centricity has become a religion in many ways. And as such is characterised by a particular philosophy-ideology, rituals and practices. We have many books-articles published on customer-centricity, customer experience, CRM, customer service etc.  We have many gurus expounding their particular philosophy of customer-centricity. We have many consultancies pushing their flavour of customer-centricity and associated paths to customer-centric nirvana. We have the IT industry pushing an array of systems under the customer-centricity and customer experience banners.  And, we have many conferences centred on the topic of customer-centricity in one or more of its flavours.

What difference does all this make when it comes to lived experience – the real world of business?  I say that customer-centricity has become the new game to play: a charade. And in this sense, customer-centricity shows up for me as a Sunday morning religion.  This was brought home to me, recently, when listening to the advice given by an engagement manager to a project manager. It went along the following lines:

“Looks like you have a happy customer. Ring up the customer and ask if he would be willing to give us a 10. If he is willing to give us a 9 or a 10 then send him the NPS survey.”

Am I faulting the engagement manager? Not at all. The engagement manager through his instruction has simply made visible the game that has become the norm under the religion of customer-centricity.  How many Christian’s who turn up on Sunday morning are actually Christians?  By that I mean how many embody-live the principles-values-practices embodied by Jesus Christ?  Please note, I am not attacking Christianity. I find that the same has occurred as regards Islam: rare is the person I encounter who calls himself a muslim and shows up for me as being as such.

I ask you consider, be with, reflect on the following sage speaking by a sage:

The intricate maze of philosophy of different schools claims to clarify matters and reveal the Truth, but in fact they create confusion where no confusion need exist. To understand anything there must needs be the understanding being. Why worry about his bodies, his ahankar, his buddhi, creation, God, Mahatmas, world – the not-Self – at all? Why not remain yourself and be in peace? Take Vedanta, for instance: it speaks of the fifteen pranas, the names and functions of which the student is asked to commit to memory. Will it not be sufficient if he is taught that only one prana does the whole work of maintaining life in the body? Again, the antahkarana is said to think, to desire, to will, to reason, etc. Why all these details? Has anyone seen the antahkarana, or all these pranas? Do they really exist? They are all conceptual divisions invented by teachers of philosophy by their excessive analysis. Where do all these concepts end? Why should confusion be created and then explained away? Fortunate is the man [person] who does not lose himself in the labyrinths of philosophy, but goes straight to the Source from which they all rise.

– Ramana Marashi

I say put aside customer lifetime value. I say put aside share of customer wallet. I say put aside big data. I say put aside data mining and predictive analytics. I say put aside CRM and CRM systems. I say put aside Voice of the Customer and Customer Experience. I say put aside customer loyalty programs….

Now ask yourself some really hard questions and answer truthfully:

  1. am I/we willing to put the needs-concerns-wellbeing of the customer at least on par with our needs-concerns-wellbeing?

  2. am I/we willing to sacrifice revenues and profits (‘bad profits’) that I/we are making from taking advantage of our customers?

  3. am I/we hungry (passionate) about coming up with products-services-solutions-experiences that simplify and enrich the lives of our customers?

The Dark Side of Using NPS as a Performance Management Tool

Let’s leave aside the theoretical aspects and arguments related to the suitability of using NPS. Instead, let’s consider the implications of using NPS as a performance management tool rather than simply as an indicator which tells us who well we are doing, as an organisation, in building meaningful relationships with customers.

Every human activity produces both things that we want – “goods” – and things we don’t want – “bads”.

– Garrett Hardin, Filters Against Folly

It occurs to me that when we use NPS as a performance management tool we act on the people in the organisation, we act on customers, we alter the balance of power between the multiple parties. And we inject high does of fear and greed into the rich tapestry of human interactions.  

This is how we end up generating the “bads” – the dark side of using NPS as a performance management tool.  Let’s get specify and look at the dark side. What shows up?

  1. Customer facing employees (sales, service) and their managers game the system to generate high NPS scores;

  2. Some customers are either ‘bribed’ and-or ‘pressured’ to give high scores;

  3. Some customers, especially the more powerful ones in B2B, exercise their new-found power to extract concessions – free ‘products’, more discounts, credits, special treatment – from the sales reps and account managers; and

  4. Some sales reps and account managers ‘give away’ more than they need to’ in order to play safe and assure high NPS scores.  This ‘giving away’ tends to be in the region of services which do not directly impact on the revenue figures and commission cheque of the sale rep.

I leave you to decide whether the “goods” generated by using NPS as a performance management tool outweigh the “bads” that I have shared with you.  I do assure you that points 3 and 4 above are not just theoretical – this behaviour is occurring.

Next time you are planning an intervention in the rich web of human relationships get together a diverse group of people, including those who are likely to be impacted, and explore this question: what is likely to happen – today and over the course of time – after we make this intervention?

Why listening to the customer involves more than simply listening

I am a fan of Teamsnap and I wrote about them a little while ago because they are a great example of a customer-centred organisation.

The subject of customer experience improvement and the need for a rounded Voice of the Customer program to feed into have been on my mind recently.  Many VoC programs rely simply on customer surveys, some include social media, few gather both structured (NPS type surveys) and unstructured (what people actually say e.g. transcription of voice recordings at the call centre).   In the process I came across some interesting research that casts doubts on the accuracy of survey based research when there is a long delay (six months) between an event occuring and the survey being carried out: How reliable is our memory for our own previous intentions.

Reading the TeamSnap blog today I came across a model example of what it takes to really listen to customers and then act on that listening: The Curious Case of the New Tracking Tab. I throughly recommend that you read and absorb it.   Here is what I take away from it:

It takes a team of people who are truly customer-centric to approach the situation in the way that TeamSnap approached the unexpected issue

Most organisations (including many who say they are customer centric) would simply have rushed ahead and imposed a fix to make the new Payments tab work.  They would just have accepted that it is logically and necessary to have customers enter an amount for every payment.  They would not have done more investigation (like TeamSnap did) to understand why customers were doing what they were doing.  Nor would they have thought about the impact the change would have on their customers.

Truly listening to your customers involves going beyond surveys and reports, it involves getting into the lives of your customers – looking at both what they say and what they do

When TeamSnap looked into how their customers were using the existing Payments tab they figured out that lots of their customers were using it to track stuff.  Clearly the customers had a need to track stuff and the existing Payments tab had made that possible – unintentionally!

The point is that this understanding, this insight, came from actually looking into what customers were doing.  It involved having users test the new Payments tab.  It involved getting that it might be an issue for customers.  It involved looking into and at how the customers were actually using the system.  I call this ‘active listening’ which is very different to what I call ‘passive listening’ – usually a survey.   It is highly unlikely that a standard survey would have unearthed this insight.  Why? Because most surveys tend to focus in on what you already know: what ‘you know you know’ and what ‘you know you do not know’.

Yet it is what ‘you do not know that you do not know’  that is often a source of breakthroughs. This realm of ‘unknown unknowns’ only becomes visible when you actually immerse yourself into the lives of  your customer and leave yourself open to being surprised.

Voice of the Customer: following in the tracks of CRM?

I am noticing that there is a lot of buzz around Voice of the Customer (VoC).  There are lots vendors out there who will supply you with the frameworks and the technology to get access to the VoC.  There are even companies out there that will do it all for you.

To my skeptical mind the promise and the buzz sounds remarkably like that of CRM in its early days: heaven on earth or put differently profitable and enduring relationships out of the box.  So what is my concern, what is my issue, what is keeping me awake?  In a nutshell, the hype, the overblown expectations.

The digital world is overflowing with data.  The first challenge is to gather the data from the various fields in which it grows and bring it together in a useful way.  Having been involved in data mining and predictive analytics I can tell you that it is not as easy as it sounds.  The next challenge is to find patterns in this data.  The bad news is that technology alone will not cut it: notice that Google has just changed its algorithm to deal with the loophole found and exploited by Vitaly Borker.  So human being are required.  Human beings who understand the process; who understand the technology including it’s limitation; who understand the business; and who understand customers.  Then the fun really starts.

Having found the patterns and interpreted the patterns from the VoC these wonderful human beings have to convert these patterns, these insights, into a language that the people in the business can understand.  Believe it or not this is not as simple as it sounds.  The people who are often best at finding the patterns in the data really struggle to convey their insight in a way that the business people get. Incidentally, finding people who are good at turning data into insight is not easy.

Now we get to the really serious problems.

Human beings have a strong tendency to discount anything that does not fit in with their view of the world, their values, their goals, their self-interest.  This is particularly so when these people have been completely divorced from the process of gathering, integrating and making sense of the data. So it is not at all guaranteed that the wisdom that has been gathered from VoC will actually be accepted by those who have the power to act on it.

Next we come to the central problem and it is this: knowing really does not make the difference.  Think of all the obese, unfit, people in rich societies and then think of all the mountains of ink that has been written on eating the right foods, in moderate amounts and the need for exercise.  I have known for many years that I need to exercise more, yet I did nothing until I had a blood test that frightened me a lot.  Now I exercise for at least half an hour a day, every day.

So where am I going with this?

First, all the work and cost associated with VoC is only worthwhile if there is real hunger in the organisation (started with the Tops) to use it to improve the lot of the customer and to improve the effectiveness of business operations.  I have worked in an organisation which spent considerable amount of money and effort on conducting NPS surveys.  Whilst one set of people were passionate about the process, the bulk of the European organisation (at all levels) was not.  As a result, nothing significant changed from one survey to the next.

Second, there is absolutely no substitute for the Tops (the Csuite, the elite) getting away from their offices and walking in the shoes of their customers and of their people who have to interact with and serve these customers. I believe that was the lesson of the Undercover Boss tv series.  So by all means do VoC but not at the expense of having senior and middle managers walk in the shoes of customers and front line staff.  If I absolutely had to choose between the two, I would drop VoC and insist managers work on the front line regularly.

What do you think?