Digging into ‘customer-centricity’: what is the defining feature of a ‘customer-centric’ company?

My last post (a practical enquiry into service, customer experience and customer-centricity) generated some interesting conversations.  A particularly interesting conversation took place between Bob Thompson and me – you need to scroll towards the bottom and read the comments.  In this post I want to address the key question that Bob raised:

Customer-centricity is at least as vague a term as CRM and CEM. Is it a strategy? A state of mind? A loyal relationship?   Personally, I’ve defined “being customer-centric” as delivering value that customers care about. The end results should be more loyal customers.  But it’s not quite that simple. How do we explain the success of Ryanair, which offers a low-cost service, gets lots of travelers and makes money, but can hardly be said to have raving fans?

If you have looked into that conversation between Bob and myself you will see that I addressed the Ryanair issue.  So what I up for addressing is the question: what clues can you look for that helps you to distinguish a ‘customer-centric’ from a ‘not customer-centric’ company?

Is listening / responsiveness the distinguishing feature?

In this post Bob Thompson asserts that Starbuck is customer-centric because it listened to him.  Bob had an issues with his local Starbucks: “we started noticing that about 30 minutes before the store officially closed, employees brought the tables and chairs from outside and piled them up inside the store. Frankly, it made the store look like “we’re closing” and customers weren’t welcome.” So Bob wrote an email to Starbucks pointing out the issue, he got a response within 24 hours letting him know that the matter would be discussed with the store manager.  And then Starbucks acted on Bob’s email request: “Not only did Starbucks listen, they did something. Fast!  That evening, and all the evenings since then (I checked) the tables and chairs were left outside until closing. And what do you know, there were customers actually using them!

So my question is that if a company makes it easy for you to contact it, responds quickly to your contact and then sorts out your issue / gives you what you are asking for (like Starbucks did with Bob) does that make that company customer-centric?  From where I stand and view customer-centricity the answer is NO.  Why?

Think back to my last post and in particular the issue that arose between the customer and Joe the bartender. Joe acting in the best interests of the customer (including the customer’s wife and three children) refused to serve more alcohol to the customer.  The customer had an issue with this, he reached out to the company, the company gave Joe (the bartender) a telling off, fixed the issue and compensated the customer for his trouble by giving him two free drinks.  What was the end result?  The customer got heavily drunk, drove home, had a crash and died – taking three other people with him.

Purpose-Vision-Mission statements – do these help us distinguish a ‘customer-centric’ company from a ‘not customer-centric’ company?

When you read the following vision/mission statements I’d like you to be present to what emotions they evoke in you as well as what thoughts bubble up for you.   Let’s start:

Ryanair:  “Ryanair’s objective is to firmly establish itself as Europe’s leading low-fares scheduled passenger airline through continued improvements and expanded offerings of its low-fares service. Ryanair aims to offer low fares that generate increased passenger traffic while maintaining a continuous focus on cost-containment and operating efficiencies.”

Yahoo!:  “Yahoo!’s mission is to be the most essential global Internet service for consumers and businesses.”

Microsoft:  “Microsoft’s mission is to enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential.”

Dell:  “Dell’s mission is to be the most successful computer company in the world at delivering the best customer experience in markets we serve.”

OK, now lets move on to a second set of companies.  As you read these mission statements please be present to how these land for you – what feelings and thoughts do these evoke for you?

Chick-fil-A:  “Chick -fil-A’s corporate purpose statement reveals the heart of our company: “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.” Chick-fil-A’s mission statement reveals our commitment to service: “To be American’s best quick-service restaurant.”

Southwest Airlines:  “The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.”

Amazon: “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”

USAA: “To facilitate the financial security of its members, associates and their families through provision of a full range of highly competitive financial products and services; in so doing, USAA seeks to be the provider of choice for the military community.”

Starbucks:  “Our mission: to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time.”

Virgin Atlantic: “At Virgin Atlantic, our mission statement is simple…To grow a profitable airline…Where people love to fly…And where people love to work.”

Did you notice the key differences?

Customer-centric companies are in a totally different league when it comes to the game that they are playing.  Did you notice that their mission statements:

1.  start with / draw attention to customers, what jobs they will do for their customers, what value they will create, how they will treat their customers?

2.  speak words that speak to human beings in terms of their ‘concerns’ as human beings: ‘glorify’,’ faithful’, ‘positive influence’, ‘service’, ‘warmth’, ‘friendliness’, ‘pride’, ‘spirit’, ‘dedication’, ‘member’s, ‘worthwhile satisfying employment’,’discover’, ‘financial security’, ‘competitive products’, ‘families’, ‘nurture’, ‘human spirit’, ‘love’, ‘people’..?

3.  are concrete, meaningful and even inspiring to customers (and employees) whereas the mission statements of the ‘not customer-centric’ companies are vague, amorphous, general and generally meaningless and uninspiring?

Customer-Centricity: being of service, enriching lives and contributing to a better world

From where I stand I am clear that the key characteristic that characterise and distinguish a ‘customer-centric’ company from a ‘not customer-centric company’ is that the ‘customer-centric’ company is playing a totally difference game.

The ‘not customer-centric’ companies (including those that espouse customer-centric rhetoric) see customers as tools, as instruments, as means for enriching the Tops and the the people who represent the shareholders. And within that context there is no consideration of the longer term, stewardship of the world that we live in, the dignity of our fellow human beings.  Anything goes as long as ‘rent’ is extracted from customers to line the pockets of the Tops and shareholders.

Under the rhetoric of ‘customer focus, customer experience, customer-centricity, customer obsession’ is the urgency to sell, sell, sell the products that the companies has to sell.  The customer rhetoric is there only because it has become hard to sell because customers are more demanding, more discriminating and their is a high level of competition. The whole edifice is built on fear, greed and the “I-It” orientation towards customers, employees, suppliers, partners, communities in which these companies operate.  In short, this is business as usual – the standard economic/industrial/organisation model that is in place today and accepted as best practice, the smart way to do business.

The ‘customer-centric’ companies are primarily coming from a context of being of service, of contributing to our fellow humans, of making a genuine and worthwhile difference to the lives of the people who touch and are touched by the company- customer-centric companies live a “I-Thou” orientation.   The Tops who founded and/or are running these companies get the importance of making profits.  Yet, that is not the purpose nor the mission of these companies.  To ‘customer-centric’ companies profits are like the air that we breathe necessary to survive and profits are the reward that customers/employees bestow on the company for the service that the company has rendered.  Profits are marker of the level of contribution they make.  And profits are the grain that can be stored today for when the ‘seven years of famine’ strike.

A warning or two

First warning: ‘customer-centricity’ does not necessarily guarantee financial success.  Customer-centric businesses can and do go out of business – all that is needed is a disruptive innovation.

Second warning:  you actually have to live up to the ‘customer-centric’ mission statement to be viewed as being ‘customer-centric’ by your employees and customers.  Starbucks espoused the mission but took all manner of actions that did not fit in with the mission to grow revenues and profits to meet shareholder expectations.  It got into a mess and the man who had formulated, fought for and lived the mission statement (Howard Schultz) had to come back, take over and turn around Starbucks – get the people in the business connected with and living the mission wholeheartedly.  Today, Tesco is where Starbucks was at.  It espouses a fine mission – “Our core purpose is, ‘To create value for customers to earn their lifetime loyalty’. We deliver this through our values, ‘No-one tries harder for customers’, and ‘Treat people how we like to be treated” – and it failed to live up to it for several years and is now paying the price.

How USEFUL are you to your customers?

Take a look at your business through SD Logic

If you use the Service Dominant Logic lens (as opposed to a good dominant logic) it opens up a new way of looking at the interaction/interface between your business and the Customer.  The key aspects of the Services Dominant Logic (for me) are:

  • the Customer approaches your business because he/she has a job (something to do) and an outcome (the desired end state) in mind;
  • the products and/or solutions you sell are better thought of as services your provide to help the Customer get the job done and achieve her desired end state.

SDLogic gives rise to the question: how useful am I to the Customer?

If you look more deeply into this you are likely to see that a key question arises: how USEFUL are you and your products/services/solutions to the customer in terms of the job he has in mind and the outcome/s she wants?   It seems to me that many are attracted to all manner of toys’ and yet few are focussed in excelling at being USEFUL to the customer across the customer journey.  I would go further and say that what I find most stunning given the whole thing around customer-centricity, customer focus, customer obsession is the lack of conversation around the following questions:

  1. What phenomena (devices, environment, cues, messages, touchpoints…) would have to be present for us to show up as USEFUL in the Customer’s world?
  2. How useful are we?  Where do we excel?  Where do we fall short?  (As viewed through the Customer’s eyes)
  3. What is present that needs to be taken out to be useful?
  4. What is missing the presence of which would make us useful – as viewed through Customer eyes?

Why USEFULNESS matters

It is 3am in the morning as I get up and get ready to drive my eldest to Gatwick Airport so that he can catch is 7am flight to France.  By 3:45 I have walked up to the top of the hill where I parked the car last night and have filled the boot with shovels, supplies (food, drinks, blankets, torch…) and luggage.  I have also dislodged all the snow sitting on all the windows – overnight we got some 15cm of snow as predicted.  At 3:50 we set-off.  This is journey that should only take about 50 minutes and I know that it is going to take at least twice that long: the snow covers the roads and pavements like a thick blanket and so I am driving around  15 mph.  Finally, we make it to the motorway and we are travelling between 40 mph and 60 mph.   Not great but it is ok as I had allowed for this: when you have done enough big projects and programmes then identifying risks and coming up with contingency plans becomes second nature.

It is now 4:45 and we are only half an hour away from Gatwick Airport.  There is one problem – the motorway ahead is closed and so I need to figure out how I get to the airport.  As it happens my son has my wife’s Garmin sat-nav on.  He can’t work it so I get off at the exit, pull over and take the Garmin.  I tap it like I am used to tapping my TomTom, it should take me to the main menu where I can work around obstructions on the route and it will recalculate.  Nothing happens.  I look at the display and I cannot figure out how I get access to main menu or the route navigation menu.  I am in a hurry so I hand it over to my son and reach for my TomTom in the glove compartment.  Within three minutes the TomTom has plotted the route (which includes the blocked motorway), I have told it to avoid the next two junctions (as they are blocked) and it has come back with a new route.  Excellent, I feel great even though it is dark, the snow is falling and the route is about twice as long.  Why do I feel great?  Because I ‘hired’ the TomTom to do a  job quickly – to work out a navigable route – and that is exactly what it has done!

Now here is the point to get.  I am in the process of buying a new sat-nav as my TomTom is old and bulky.  I had been considering whether to buy a TomTom or a Garmin and up to that point I had favoured the Garmin.  Then that incident happened.  Which product am I going to buy?  The one that is USEFUL of course – the TomTom – even though it is about 50% more expensive.  Lets ask that question differently: why would any intelligent customer willingly buy a product/service/solution that is not useful or less useful than a competing product that sells for the same/lower price?

What is the access to being perceived as useful?

Given my sat-nav experience and the work that I have done in helping design websites I would say that you absolutely have to get the following right if your non-human interfaces / touchpoints are going to occur as useful in your Customer’s world:

DEFAULTS:  you absolutely have to understand the default (the automatic) ways that your customers think and behave.  Notice that I used the Garmin the way that I am used to using a TomTom. Why?  Because the TomTom was my first sat-nav and my world of sat-nav is built entirely around my experience in using the TomTom.  Having looked into the Garmin I have found that it has similar route navigation functionality including working around blocked roads.  The issue arose because I had to access this functionality in a different way to the TomTom – a way that I was not used to and appears strange to me even now. Another example is that I always get caught out when I use computers in FranceI touch type and only when I look up at the screen do I notice that the French keyboards are set out very differently to English/American keyboards!

RESPONSIVENESS and FEEDBACK:  when the Customer touches you have to respond within a specific time and ‘speak in the Customer’s language.  We are exquisite feedback organisms – feedback is always going on and we rely on it to orient ourselves and act upon the world.  Just think of the ‘social dances’ that we are immersed in every day.  For example, conversation: those of us who do not pay attention and cut in at the wrong time do damage to the flow of the conversation sometimes bringing to an abrupt halt and/or being considered rude, dominating, inconsiderate etc.

What constitutes responsiveness to a Customer depends on the particular state that the customer is in (relaxed, hurried, stressed….), the particular job that the customer has in mind (urgent, critical, important, sometime…), the nature of the interactive device and who visible the Customer is to other onlookers.  Feedback to occur as feedback (useful feedback) in the Customer’s world it is necessary that the designers understand the backgrounds of the Customers e.g. their culture, their language, their educational level….. And of course feedback must be timely: the Customer must be able to match, easily, the feedback to the action that he last took and use that feedback to take the right next step.

When it comes to my sat-nav experience I notice that the Garmin occurred as non-responsive to my touch and the TomTom came across as responsive.  The issue with many IVR systems is that they utter (speak) rubbish: speak corporate jargon rather than use words/phrases that real Customers think in terms of and speak and as such the Customer is left pondering stuff like what menu option to hit to progress and get his job done.  Put bluntly the Customer already has a schema (mental model) or schemas of the kind of response she is expecting and your response had better fit into one of these schemas if you do not want to disrupt the harmony between you and your Customer.

USABILITY: designing the interactive touchpoint so that it lends itself to the way that customers view, process, use information, manipulate objects of its kind.  Some phones are easier to use than other phones simply because some designers better understand and cater for Customers (users) being human beings.  Some books are easier to comprehend because the information is written and presented in a way that is natural for human beings to process.  Some website are easier to user because the website designers have immersed themselves in usability and have made use of the key tricks and avoided the key traps.

You can make an interactive touchpoint highly useful (it has the content, the tools, the functionality to do the job that the Customer has in mind) and yet it does not occur as useful.  Why?  Because the designers have not put in the time, effort and love that is needed to make that touchpoint usable.  One of my key contributions in my previous role (Head of Customer Analytics and Marketing Solutions) was to take the useful models built by expert modellers and make them easy to comprehend and use by the average marketing manager who had no affinity for numbers and did not know or care about data mining or predictive analytics.

Final Words

If you are not willing to invest what it takes to make an interactive touchpoint responsive and usable then don’t waste your money making it useful!  Very few of your Customers will ever get to the stage where they will actually find the useful stuff and then actually use it: the lack of usability and responsiveness will make sure of that.

I notice that there seems to be crisis when it comes to B2B sales.  Has this something to do with the fact that most B2B sellers are simply not coming across as being USEFUL to the jobs and outcomes that B2B buyers have on their minds?   It occurs to me that the typical functions of providing information and doing demos of products and solutions is really not that compelling anymore.  Prospective buyers can access information, case studies, demos on websites, on YouTube…..  So the question becomes what jobs and outcomes do prospective buyers have in mind and what do we need to be/do to occur as useful?

Finally, I cannot help thinking that a key measure of customer-centricity is how USEFUL you occur to your Customers as view through their eyes.  What do you think?  I invite you to share your views.