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?

A skeptical look at 2012 and best practices

Skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found. [Miguel de Unamuno, “Essays and Soliloquies,” 1924]

What shows up for me when I reflect back on 2012?  It occurs to me that most of what is written on all things business – including customer – is driven by the need of people and organisations to sell something: a product, a service, a solution, themselves.   Put differently, it is marketing.  The job of marketing is not ‘truth’ nor ‘usefulness’.  No, the job of marketing is to bypass the mind and pull the heart strings so as to move the human being to act in accordance with the wishes of the marketer.  And as such that which is written – including every post that I write – should be questioned.  More accurately, it should be tested to determine if it is science or merely philosophy masquerading as science.

I say that the area that needs the most urgent and critical examination into that which is merely philosophy masquerading as science is  in the areas of customer theory (CRM, Customer Experience, loyalty) and best practices.   

Why go to the trouble to question, research, investigate and test stuff out for ourselves?  Because there is a world of difference between genuinely useful theory (‘good theory’ the term used by Clayton Christensen) and that which masquerades as useful theory.  What do I mean?  I’ll let Clayton Christensen speak on the matter:

“Consider, for example, the history of mankind’s attempts to fly.  Early researchers observed strong correlations between being able to fly and having feathers and wings.  Stories of men attempting to fly by strapping on wings date back hundreds of years.  They were replicating what they believed allowed birds to soar: wings and feathers. 

Possessing these attributes had a high correlation ….. with the ability to fly, but when humans attempted to follow what they believed were “best practices” of the most successful fliers by strapping on wings, then jumping off cathedrals and flapping hard … they failed.  The mistake was that although feathers and wings were correlated with flying, the would-be-aviators did not understand the fundamental causal mechanism … that enabled certain creatures to fly.  

The real breakthrough in human flight did not come from crafting better wings or using more feathers.  It was brought about by Dutch-Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernouelli and his book Hydrodynamica, a study of fluid mechanics…. he outlined …. a theory that, when applied to flight, explained the concept of lift.  We had gone from correlation (wings and feathers) to causality (lift).  Modern flight can be traced directly back to the development and adoption of this theory.”

I say that most of what is pushed as “best practice” in business – including the areas of CRM, CXP, customer loyalty – is merely anecdote and correlation.  And putting in place these ‘best practices’ and expecting to win the game of business is about as sane as strapping on feathers and wings and expecting to fly! I say that you should adopt/live the best practice of deeply questioning best practices.

If you disagree with me then please share your perspective.  I am particularly interested in anyone who thinks they have found the equivalent of lift (causal mechanism) for business success, for engendering customer loyalty.  Please know that I am open to being proved wrong, to be shown the error of my ways – and I mean that genuinely.  Or as Clayton Christensen puts it:

“But even the breakthrough understanding of the cause of flight still wasn’t enough to make flight perfectly reliable.  When an airplane crashed, researchers then had to ask, “What was it about the circumstances of that particular attempt to fly that led to failure? Wind? Fog? The angle of the aircraft?” Researchers could then define what rules pilots needed to follow in order to succeed in each different circumstance.  That’s a hallmark of good theory: it dispenses its advice in “if-then” statements.”

And finally, I recommend Clayton’s book How Will You Measure Your Life.  It is a great read. And if embraced it will make a contribution to your life, your business.

What is the ‘secret sauce’ of success?

What is the ‘secret sauce’ of this company’s success?

I was at a gathering where the topic of ‘secret sauce’ came up in the context of the ‘secret sauce’ of the company’s success.  After the main forum I ended up in a conversation with two colleagues  – one of whom (D) had posed the ‘secret sauce’ question and other of whom (J) has been working with me on a recent consulting engagement.  Talking about ‘secret sauce’ J pointed out what he sees as my secret sauce: analytical skills, financial skills, workshop facilitation skills, consulting skills, being straight with clients, articulating my point of view, getting along with people……

What is my ‘secret sauce’? Is it what it seems to be?

Does my secret sauce come down to a bunch of skills, behaviour, frameworks and tools?  Is it possible that what J is pointing at are simply the visible aspects of the iceberg and the ‘secret sauce’ is hidden from view especially from those with a scientific orientation which neglects the inner dimensions of the human being? If I have a ‘secret sauce’ then it lies in my inner dimension – my being, my stance, the context from which I operate, how I see myself.

What if I told you that my ‘secret sauce’ is CARING?  I care deeply about this client – the people who have placed their trust in me. I care deeply about the what we (the client and I) are up to – the project we have taken on, the outcome which we wish to manifest in this world. I care deeply about the impact this will have on the lives of prospects and customers who touch this business.  I care deeply about how it will impact/improve the lives of the people who work within this business;.  And I care deeply about excellence – doing great work impeccably.

What if I told you that my ‘secret sauce’ is the conscious choice to operate from a context of service and of contribution – of making a difference to the quality of our lives and the ‘workability’ of the world that we share?  Yes, I am straight with people and that includes sharing/disclosing what they do not necessarily want to hear.  What J does not see is that I can only be straight because this being straight arises out of this context of service.  What J does not see is that when it does not matter, when it does not contribute to the game I am playing, I strive to keep my mouth shut.  Furthermore, what J does not see is that in my consulting work I operate from the  educational/coaching paradigm:  I help clients see, explore and get to grips with the options that are available to them and once this is done I make it clear that the responsibility for choosing the path lies with them as it is ‘their baby’ and I am simply the ‘midwife’ – they have to live with the consequences of their choices whereas I can walk away.


Am I sharing this with you because I am on an ego trip today?  Possibly and I hope not.  I am sharing this with you to point out the following:

  • We live in a culture where the default is to look for success recipes that take away the inherent uncertainty, unpredictability, messiness of life and replace it with certainty, security, guarantees;
  • The number of explanations for anything that shows up is limited only by the number of worldviews / ideologies / perception filters that are available and used to make sense of the ‘situation/data at hand’;
  • We live in a culture where our search for these recipes is often only on the outside – that which is visible to the naked eye;
  • Often the recipes don’ work out because we only looked at the surface and did not dig deeper to get at the true ‘secret sauce’.

This probably occurs as ‘abstract and intellectual’ to you so let me share some example with you to make it more concrete.  Lets start with Honda to show how smart people can come up with multiple interpretations based on their worldview or the secret-sauce they want to promote (because they have a vested interest in promoting it).

Honda: what was the secret sauce behind Honda’s successful entry into the US motorbike market?

What accounts for Honda’s successful entry into the US motorbike industry back in the 60s/70s?  The answer depends on the worldview that you hold, the lens that you use to pose that question and dig around for answers.  Here are three different answers due to three different lenses:

“The first is the BCG Report [1975] story of Honda’s cost advantage, developed (the story goes) by the successful exploitation of scale and learning, and of the “segment retreat” response of British and American competitors. Anyone who received an MBA between 1979 and 1985 was almost certainly exposed to this version of history.

The second, explicated by Pascale [1984], offers a revisionist account of Honda’s motorcycle success.’ According to Pascale’s interview with six Honda executives, the company’s early scale in Japan came from its having a better product, flowing from design skills. Furthermore, Honda did not “target” specific market segments in the U.S., but rather showed an ability to experiment, to learn quickly from mistakes, to rapidly revise design problems, and thereby to discover opportunities.

The third, described by Prahalad & Hamel [1989, 1990], couples Honda’s success in motorcycles with its successful entry into the U.S. automobile market. Here the center of the story is Honda’s remarkable ability to go from “nowhere” to prominence despite the earlier entry of very efficient competitors like Toyota and Nissan. Prahalad and Hamel have given the names “intent” and “stretch” to the processes which underlay this success and the name “core competence” to the central skills and abilities that Honda built upon.”

If you want to read more then check out / download the following:  HONDA Enters Into US

Zappos: what is the secret sauce?

If you read about Zappos the taken for granted answers are: culture and wow service.  One or more astute observers have also noted logistics – Zappos wow service is enabled in part because Zappos has a finely tuned logistics operation that can get goods quickly to customers.   So is that the secret sauce?

I say that these are simply the visible manifestations of the secret sauce.  I say that if you read “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh you will find that the secret sauce is Tony Hsieh.  Tony has a particular philosophy: living a meaningful life, an affinity for people, an affinity for fun, strongly family ethos, a desire to get into and be a part of the nuts and bolts of business, getting that when you create happiness you are the first one to be lifted by this happiness.  And everything that is visible at Zappos is a manifestation of Tony Hsieh.

Starbucks: what is the secret sauce?

Is it the quality of the coffee?  Is it the location of the stores?  Is it the layout / feel of the stores?  Perhaps it is the baristas that serve customers?  Maybe it is the machinery and the processes?

From where I stand I am clear that the secret sauce is Howard Schultz.  Go read “Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup At a Time” and “Onward: How Starbucks Fought For Its Life Without Losing Its Soul”.  Read deeply enough and you are likely to find that Starbucks is simply the manifestation of Shultz’s love of coffee, the coffee experience and his stance/relationship towards ordinary people.

Schultz knows first hand what happens to people and families when people are not treated well, recognised, acknowledged, not given an opportunity to develop, to progress, to shine.  So is it a surprise that he fought so hard to give the barista’s – part time employees – pay and rights (including medical coverage) that were unheard of in the retail industry?

What happened when he handed over the reins?  Starbucks did lose its soul – the person who replaced Shultz was not Schultz and did not live Shultz’s philosophy  when it came to the quality of the coffee, the coffee experience, how people should be treated…..  Incidentally, I do know that Howard Behar and is philosophy about people and relationships complemented and made a big impact on Schultz and how he ran Starbucks.

Final thought

Be skeptical of any and all ‘secret sauces’ that are put forward.  Why?  For any phenomenon a multiplicity of stories can be constructed to explain and give meaning to that phenomenon.  The number of stories is limited only by the imagination and the number of voices that get to speak and be heard.  Furthermore, perhaps the challenge is to come up with, create, construct ‘secret sauces’ rather than find existing ones.  Where would Apple be if it had looked for the ‘secret sauce’ rather than invented it?  Where would Starbucks be?  Where would Facebook be?  Where would Google be (remember that Yahoo was the master of the online universe then)?

The one difference that makes all the difference

The C-level doesn’t get it

In a recent post Jeannie Walters she highlighted the 4 challenges facing customer experience practitioners.  Which challenge is first in the list?  “The C-Level Doesn’t Get It”.  She goes on to write:

  • “In fact, an overarching (and repeating) lament was “How do I get them to GET IT?””
  • “No matter how you say it, it seems to be an ongoing, uphill battle right now.”

The difference between philosophy, strategy and tactics makes all the difference

Now that may not make sense until you get that there is world of difference between philosophy and strategy and tactics.  Philosophy is the ground zero of existence – it is your raison d’etre of being.  Strategy is simply a course of action that you have selected in order to achieve what matters to you – your higher order objectives.  Tactics are simply the how of strategy; tactics do not have to connect up to constitute a strategy and often they do not in many organisations when functions develop their own silo ‘strategies’ that optimise the parts and end up suboptimising the whole.

Now here is the issue: almost all companies have approached customer-centricity/customer experience/customer focus as a strategy (at best) and/or simply tactics to grow revenues and profits. Very few companies have embraced creating superior value for customers as their business philosophy – the reason for existence.  And that makes all the difference. The acid test for differentiating between philosophy and strategy is to look for the “in order to”.  Think of the early Christians who accepted being eaten by lions rather than renounce their faith: these Christians could have renounced their religion in order to live – the pragmatic business person would say that the sound strategy was to renounce the religion.  Starbucks ended up doing that for a while and then Shultz resumed the mantle of CEO to help Starbucks to rediscover its founding philosophy: the customer experience.

What we can learn from Steve Jobs and Apple on this distinction

The points that I want to make are excellently spelled out in a post by James Allworth.  Here are the aspects of his post that really speak to me and to the central point that I am making in this post (anything in bold is my work):

Everything — the business, the people — are subservient to the mission: building great products. And rather than listening to, or asking their customers what they wanted; Apple would solve problems customers didn’t know they had with products they didn’t even realize they wanted

When describing his period of exile from Apple — when John Sculley took over — Steve Jobs described one fundamental root cause of Apple’s problems. That was to let profitability outweigh passion: “My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. The products, not the profits, were the motivation. Sculley flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything.”

When he returned, Jobs completely upended the company. There were thousands of layoffs. Scores of products were killed stone dead. He knew the company had to make money to stay alive, but he transitioned the focus of Apple away from profits. Profit was viewed as necessary, but not sufficient, to justify everything Apple did.

An executive who worked at both Apple and Microsoft described the differences this way: “Microsoft tries to find pockets of unrealized revenue and then figures out what to make. Apple is just the opposite: It thinks of great products, then sells them. Prototypes and demos always come before spreadsheets.”

Similarly, Apple talks a lot about its great people. But make no mistake — they are there only in service of the mission.  A former Apple product manager described Apple’s attitude like this: “You have the privilege of working for the company that’s making the coolest products in the world. Shut up and do your job, and you might get to stay.”

Apple hasn’t optimized its organization to maximize profit. Instead, it has made the creation of value for customers its priority. When you do this, the fear of cannibalization or disruption of one’s self just melts away. In fact, when your mission is based around creating customer value, around creating great products, cannibalization and disruption aren’t “bad things” to be avoided. They’re things you actually strive for — because they let you improve the outcome for your customer.

A final word

The hardest thing for ‘experts’ and ‘Tops’ to do is to unlearn – to let go of the accepted wisdom and habits that have been forged over many years.  Yet that is exactly what is required today for companies in competitive markets to prosper.  And it is certainly required if companies want to excel at the Customer game – create superior value for customers through superior value propositions that make customers lives simpler, easier, richer.  Are professional managers up to that task?  Here is what James Allworth writes in his post:

“Anyone familiar with Professor Christensen’s work will quickly recognize the same causal mechanism at the heart of the Innovator’s Dilemma: the pursuit of profit. The best professional managers — doing all the right things and following all the best advice — lead their companies all the way to the top of their markets in that pursuit… only to fall straight off the edge of a cliff after getting there.”

What do you think?