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.


How to cultivate strong customer relationships: focus on the “sliding door” moments and ATTUNE

Don and Martha say practice the Golden Rule

In their latest post – “Empathy, Self-Interest and Economics” – Don Peppers and Martha Rogers spell out the importance of the Golden rule.  They point out that at a behavioural level only psychopaths conform to the view of human nature taken by neo-classical economics.  To business leaders they say:

“Companies that want to earn their customers’ trust have to be willing to act in their customers’ interest—sometimes even when the customers’ interest conflicts with their own (at least in the short term). This is why i-Tunes will remind you that you already own a song you are about to purchase, for instance. And it’s why USAA won’t sell you more insurance than you really need, even if you mistakenly ask to do so.”

“The point is that having empathy for others is a critical part of human nature, and if you want your business to succeed, then you have to show empathy for customers, also. That means treating a customer the way you’d want to be treated yourself, if you were that customer.”

Is the UK utility industry listening to Don and Martha?

It doesn’t look like the Tops in utilities industry in the UK are listening to Don and Martha.  Npower has been slapped with a £2m fine by the regulator Ofgem.  Why? According to Marketing Week:

“Ofgem says Npower failed to record all details of the complaints it received and did not put in adequate processes to deal with complaints. It was also accused of not giving dissatisfied customers enough information about the Energy Ombudman’s redress service.”

Now you might be tempted to think that this is a one-off, an aberration.   Well British Gas (the major player) was fined £2.5m back in July.  Why?  Well in the words of Marketing Week:

“Ofgem’s investigation found that British Gas had failed to re-open complaints when the customer reported and unsatisfactory resolution; failed to provide customers with key details about the service provided by the Energy Ombudsman and failed to put in place adequate processes and practices for dealing with complaints from small businesses.”

And Marketing Week goes on to write EDF Energy is also currently under investigation from Ofgem over the way it handles its complaints.”

So where are we at?  Two of the six big players that dominate the gas and electricity market have been fined for mishandling customer complaints and a third player (EDF) is under investigation for the same offence.  What does Npower have to say:

“A small number of processes were not correctly adhered to. Ofgem is now satisfied that all problems have been rectified and we are fully compliant with our obligations to our customers. We have zero tolerance for this type of issue and we’ll continue to work hard to make sure our customers are put first.”

I don’t know about you but to me that sounds like a load of bull: if Npower really did have a zero tolerance for this type of issue then it would have made sure that an effective complaints management process, team, system was in place.   When you lookmore deeply at the industry you see that the structure has been designed to extract profits at the expense of customers: complex pricing, too many confusing tariffs, bills that are difficult to understand……

Making the customer relationship work: what we can learn from John Gottman

I you do operate in a competitive industry then you might be able to learn from the research of John Gottman – he is been studying what makes marriages work (or not) for over 40 years.  In a recent article he sets out the key things that he has learnt:

“What I found was that the number one most important issue that came up to these couples was trust and betrayal. I started to see their conflicts like a fan opening up, and every region of the fan was a different area of trust. Can I trust you to be there and listen to me when I’m upset? Can I trust you to choose me over your mother, over your friends? Can I trust you to work for our family? To not take drugs? Can I trust you to not cheat on me and be sexually faithful? Can I trust you to respect me? To help with things in the house? To really be involved with our children?”

“.zero-sum game.” You’ve probably all heard of the concept. It’s the idea that in an interaction, there’s a winner and a loser. And by looking at ratings like this, I came to define a “betrayal metric”: It’s the extent to which an interaction is a zero-sum game, where your partner’s gain is your loss.”

“But how do you build trust? What I’ve found through research is that trust is built in very small moments, which I call “sliding door” moments, after the movie Sliding Doors. In any interaction, there is a possibility of connecting with your partner or turning away from your partner.

In his article John provides a good illustration of such a sliding door moment when he saw the sadness on his wife’s face.  Here is what he says about that:

“I had a choice. I could sneak out of the bathroom and think, “I don’t want to deal with her sadness tonight, I want to read my novel.” But instead, because I’m a sensitive researcher of relationships, I decided to go into the bathroom. I took the brush from her hair and asked, “What’s the matter, baby?” And she told me why she was sad.  Now, at that moment, I was building trust; I was there for her. I was connecting with her rather than choosing to think only about what I wanted. These are the moments, we’ve discovered, that build trust.”

ATTUNE: how you cultivate trust and build strong relationships

John Gottman’s graduate student has taken their work on trust and broken it down into the idea of being in attuenment and has come up with an acronym (ATTUNE).  If I replace “partner” with “customer” we have:

  • Awareness of your customers’s emotion;
  • Turning toward the emotion;
  • Tolerance of two different viewpoints – yours and your customer’s;
  • trying to Understanding your customer – to look at the situation through his/her eyes;
  • Non-defensive responses to your customer;
  • and responding with Empathy.

My take on this

How you handle a complaint from a customer is a “sliding door” moment.  It is also a great opportunity to practice ATTUNE as complaints are high emotion events that you can use to build or rupture emotional connection.  Given that is so I continue to be surprised at how few companies do well in the complaints process.  If Npower and British Gas had taken such an approach (call it a customer friendly approach) to the complaints made by their customers then they could have: gotten insights into customer needs; learned where their business practices were failing customers; built a better relationship with customers; and avoided a fine.