Is eliminating the bargaining power of customers more important than working on the Customer Experience?

Listening to the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson I am left with the impression that nothing was more important to Steve Jobs then using technology to produce great products that delivered a great user experience.  Good enough was good enough, even great, for many in the computer industry.  Only insanely great was good enough for Steve Jobs.  Anything less was simply not good enough, it was not ‘art’ and not ‘worthy of artists”; great artists don’t want to put their names on good enough art.

Given that Apple, Amazon, Zappos, USAA, SouthWest Airlines, Zanes Cycles, Richer Sounds, Salesforce.com, O2, American Express.. have shown what can be done by focussing on the customer, why aren’t companies focussing on the Customer Experience?  According to Mindshare the biggest issue with companies and executives is turning VoC into changes in the business such that a powerful impact is made on the Customer Experience.  Why is it an issue?  Because of ‘Other Priorities’.  What can these other priorities be?

Clearly THE priority is the share price and the way to hit that is to focus in revenue generation and profitability.  How do you increase that?  The standard framework is that put forth by Michael Porter in the Five Forces model.  According to this model, the companies that do well are the ones that:

  • Reduce/eliminate the bargaining power of customers”;
  • Reduce/eliminate the bargaining power of suppliers;
  • Reduce/eliminate the threat of new entrants;
  • Reduce/eliminate threat of substitute ‘products’; and
  • Reduce/eliminate competition by ‘taking out’ competitors

Do you notice what is implied in this framework?  Do you notice that the assumption is that the company and the customer are in competition?  The aim is to reduce the bargaining power of the customers.   It occurs to me that the Tops are not sitting there fretting over customer and the Customer Experience.  It occurs to me that they are sitting there figuring out how to outmanoeuvre customers, suppliers, competitors and regulators.

The financial crisis, the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the phone hacking scandal (in the UK) have shown that regulators are easy to ‘buy’/outmanoeuvre.  That leaves customers, suppliers and competitors.  Isn’t the best way outmaneuvering customers to set up barriers to entry (patents, ‘buying off’ regulators, buying/holding key assets…), buy up/share the market with the competition and creating a difference where no difference exists through advertising and PR?

As I was mulling this over  the folks at The Simple Dollar emailed me this graphic about how AT&T and Verizon are doing extremely well due to the duopoly that they have created and maintain.  I can’t help but think that to arrive at this place is business nirvana for just about every CEO and his band of merry men (the Board of Directors)!

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.

giffgaff: where customers are ‘members’ who sit at the heart of the organisation

What makes giffgaff special – worth learning from?

Some customers love giffgaff so much that they are willing to have giffgaff tattooed on them.  If this does happen then it puts giffgaff in the same league as Harley Davidson and Apple – brands that have fans not just customers.   giffgaff won the Marketing Society’s 2011 best new brand award . And in the customer management community some hail giffgaff as representing the future of customer service.  So what makes giffgaff special – different from the pack?

First let me tell you a little bit about giffgaff.  Vodafone, O2, Orange, T-Mobile, 3 – are the main brands that dominate the UK mobile telecoms industry.  giffgaff is an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) that launched towards the end of 2009 and piggybacks on the O2 network.  And in that sense giffgaff is rather like Virgin Mobile (the first commercially successful MVNO in the UK) and say Tesco Mobile.

So what makes giffgaff special?  It is not one thing, one ingredient, it is the entire recipe – the whole business model and organisational design.  In a way it is like the way that Dell (at the start) rethought the PC industry or Ryanair / Easyjet / Southwest Airlines rethought the airline travel industry.  Let’s start with customers.  It would not be too much of a stretch to say that giffgaff does not have customers – at least not in the traditional sense of customers simply as consumers.  giffgaff has members.  Customers are seen as members who are involved in, contribute to and carry out an array of organisational tasks: provide ideas, get involved in new product development, recruiting new members, serving other members (‘customer services’)……  Many pundits talk about putting customers at the heart of the organisation yet few organisations do that – giffgaff is an exception.  There is a lot of talk about transparency, authenticity, mutuality, collaboration and co-creation yet few organisation do that – giffgaff is an exception.  Finally, giffgaff is keenly focussed on its core customer segment (those looking for a great SIM only deal) and the associated value proposition (cheap calls, texts, internet).  If you want to find out more about giffgaff then I suggest you listen to Tom Rainsford, Head of Brand and Proposition, giffgaff.   For the rest of the post I simply wish to share with you my experience of dealing with giffgaff and why I am an advocate.

My giffgaff customer experience

To sign up with giffgaff you have to head over to their website as giffgaff is an internet only operation: there are no retail stores to visit nor call centres to ring.  The first thing that I noticed was that it was easy for me to sign-up and request a SIM: the task was prominently signposted on the webpage and the task was easy as I only had to supply my name, email and address – five fields in total.

Second, I noticed that giffgaff is great value for people like me – people who already have a phone and are happy to keep using that phone.   On Orange, as a pay as you go customer, I had been paying 20p+ a minute and 10p for text messages.  With giffgaff I would be paying only 8p a minutes for phone calls and 4p a text.

Third, despite the fact that I knew absolutely nothing on phone unlocking, all the information that I needed to get my phone unlocked was on the website.  Better still upon entering the make and phone model the giffgaff website provided a list of companies that are able to unlock my phone.  And each of these companies was rated so I could just turn to the best rated one. 

Within two days I received the SIM card and it was easy to register my SIM card: I simply logged into my giffgaff account, entered a six digit code and then purchased a £10 goody bag that bought me 250 free minutes, unlimited texts and unlimited internet.  Within 30 minutes my SIM was activated and I was making calls and surfing the internet.  The process could not have been easier.

In the process of purchasing the goody bag I noticed that the giffgaff website had an automated top-up facility.  I simply had to activate and specify how much I wanted my top up to be and when the balance on my account hit a low of £3 giffgaff would automatically top-up my account thus making sure that I was never in a position where I had run out of credit and thus could not use my phone.  This grabbed my attention because that was one of the tasks that I hated doing on Orange: topping up my phone and the phones belonging to my two sons.  I still cannot believe how such a small feature delivers such a huge benefit to me: always being able to use my phone and giffgaff doing the work behind the scene.

Whilst I was using the phone I got more suprises in the form of useful information: the giffgaff network regularly displays how many minutes I have left if I have bought a gift pack (a bundled package that expires at the end of 30 days).  If I have bought ordinary minutes then giffgaff lets me know how much credit I have left at the end of calls.  Finally, when I make calls to other giffgaff phones then the giffgaff network automatically informs me that the call was free.  This is the kind of information that I had yearned for and never got from my previous provider.  And it got me thinking: if giffgaff can do this then why did my old provider not do this?

About two weeks later I got another pleasant surprise: an email from giffgaff letting me know that they were sending me an additional SIM card that I could give to a friend.  And on the same day it arrived.  When I opened up the envelope I noticed that I was not simply being asked to get a new customer for giffgaff.  giffgaff had thought through the value exchange: once the SIM was activated then the person using that new SIM would be credited with £5 and so would I.  So I was being rewarded for my effort.  How could I refuse?  My wife switched over from Orange to giffgaff.  And she is delighted with the money that she is saving and how easy it is for her to manage her mobile account/relationship with giffgaff.

At the end of the month I was able to view an analysis of my phone usage via the giffgaff statement.  This took me by surprise because on Orange I simply got a list of phone calls I made chronologically.  On the giffgaff site I got that and I got a bar chart type analysis which I found useful – it helped me to figure out what I had been doing with my phone.  I was surprised and delighted by the thoughtfulness of it: giffgaff is providing me with information and tools that help me to be informed and make better decisions. 

Interestingly enough giffgaff beat me to that as well.  Shortly after this experience I got an email from giffgaff telling me that they had done an analysis on my usage and had a recommendation for me.  So I logged on the website and accessed that recommendation.  The recommendation itself was no surprise but the fact that giffgaff was doing this was and is a delight.  It was something that I had wanted from my previous provider and yet was never able to get.  As a consultant I had advised a major mobile telco to implement this practice, as this telco wanted to improve the customer experience, yet management refused because it would have an adverse impact on revenues and profits because most customers were on tariffs that were too high and costly for them.

Now this might not sound like a big thing and yet it is to me: the language that giffgaff use is a human one and that really connects with me.  The other day I got a SMS message which delighted me both because it was unexpected and because of its simplicity.  Here it is “Thanks for helping to grow giffgaff, you’ve earned ….so far. For more information and to check your recommended plan see My giffgaff at giffgaff.com, cheers!”  I have recommended more than once the companies and marketers use a human language that speaks to connects with customers – that is something that giffgaff is doing rather well.

Finally, I recently took my phone to France and got another pleasant surprise.  On landing the mobile connected to a French network and up came useful information from giffgaff.  I cannot remember the exact words yet the message was clear: we don’t want you to have any unpleasant surprises so lets make clear how much your mobile calls are going to cost.  I was told that I would be charged 38p per minute if I was making the calls and 15p per minute if I was receiving calls.  This is the kind of honest, proactive, information that I have always sought and never got from previous suppliers (mobile networks).

Why am I a giffgaff advocate?

I am adding giffgaff to the list of companies I recommend.  Why?  Simply because they have made my life easier by taking hassle out of it (e.g. automating topping up), provide me with useful information (how much credit I have left, how many minutes I have left, how much calls are going to cost…), talk to me in a human way (the simple friendly informal language), provide more value for money (cheaper calls, texts, internet..), reward me for the contribution that I make to giffgaff and the call quality / network coverage is as good as that provided by my previous supplier (Orange).  Finally, I prefer being called/treated as a ‘member’ rather than a ‘target’, ‘consumer’ or even ‘customer’.  How about you?