On Customer Obsession

Customer Obsession Is Fashionable

I hear more and more Middles & Tops mention the importance/need for customer obsession. It’s often used as an exhortation to the Bottoms – those on the front line.  Something interesting happens when I ask the speaker what s/he means by, is pointing at, when s/he speaks of customer obsession. Silence followed by stuff that shows up for me as either banal or made up on the spot.  Little in the way of thinking (as in contemplation) has occurred in many instances.

Is Customer Obsession New?

Interestingly, customer obsession isn’t new. What’s the basis of my assertion?  I remember 2000/2001: my colleagues and I start a customer strategy engagement (centred on 1to1 marketing) at a well known mobile telco. What do we find? We find a dedicated research unit in the marketing function.  A unit which has budget of many millions. What is this money spent on?  Understanding the market (totality of customers for mobile phones/services); understanding their own customer base; and understanding the customers of their competitors.  I categorically state that the head of this research unit and the folks that worked in that unit were obsessed with customers.

The interesting question is this one: Towards which end/s was this customer obsession directed?  Was it directed towards driving product development?  Or the customer’s experience of signing up for the right phone/package?  Perhaps, helping the customer’s make good of that which s/he had purchased?  No, not at all. The purpose was to work out how to drive up sales and profit margins through marketing: targeting the right messages/offers to the right customers or potential customers.

Was 2000/2001 the start of customer obsession? No.  I remember the power and practices of the various brand marketers whilst in the employ of International Distillers & Vintners back in 1993.  I say customer obsession of this kind -figuring out how to squeeze more out of the customer has a long history.

Let’s consider alternative conceptions of customer obsession.

Satya Nadella on Customer Obsession

In his book Hit Refresh Microsoft’s CEO says (bolding/coloring is my doing):

“First, we need to obsess about our customers. At the core of our business must be the curiosity and desire to meet a customer’s unarticulated and unmet needs ….. There is no way to do that unless we absorb with deeper insight and empathy what they need.….. When we talk to customers, we need to listen. It’s not an idle exercise….. We learn about our customers and their businesses with a beginner’s mind and then bring them solutions that meet their needs. We need to be insatiable in our desire to learn from the outside and bring that learning into Microsoft, whilst still innovating to surprise and delight our users.” 

Jeff Bezos on Customer Obsession

Here’s what Amazon’s founder & CEO says in his 2016 Letter to Shareholders (bolding/coloring is my doing):

“There are many ways to center a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality.

Why? There are many advantages to a customer-centric approach, but here’s the big one: customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it, and I could give you many such examples.”

Shortcuts on The Route of Customer Obsession

It occurs to me that many executives are all for customer obsession as long as they can just speak it sitting comfortably in the stands.  It’s another matter altogether when customer obsession requires leaving the stands and entering the arena.  Which arena? The arena in which customers show up and operate.  And the arena in which the customers interact with the organisation’s front line – websites, mobile apps, sales folks, customer services….

Take a look at the CX movement and ask yourself what is it characterized by?  Is it not journey mapping almost always in the comfort of a workshop in the corporate offices, and the results of voice of the customer surveys?  What are these?  They are proxies for the real thing.  These proxies are attractive as they allow folks to pretend they have insights from the arena whilst sitting comfortably in the stands.

Here’s what Jeff Bezos says with regards to proxies in his 2016 letter (bolding/coloring is my doing):

Resist Proxies

As companies get larger and more complex, there’s a tendency to manage to proxies. This comes in many shapes and sizes, and it’s dangerous…

A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing… The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right…..

Another example: market research and customer surveys can become proxies for customers – something that’s especially dangerous when you’re inventing and designing products.

Good inventors and designers deeply understand their customer. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys. They live with the design.
I’m not against beta testing or surveys. But you, the product or service owner, must understand the customer, have a vision, and love the offering. Then, beta testing and research can help you find your blind spots. A remarkable customer experience starts with heart, intuition, curiosity, play, guts, taste. You won’t find any of it in a survey.”

Enough for today.  I thank for your listening. Until the next time….

Maz Signature