What Does It Take To Access And Hear The Richness Of The Voice Of The Customer?

I invite you to take a zen like look into the whole ‘voice of the customer’ thing. By ‘voice of the customer’ I mean the practice of using customer surveys to get customer feedback.  And then turning these individuals customer surveys into tables, charts, reports, and presentations which are fed to managers. By zen I mean a simple direct looking into the concrete reality void of ideology-conceptualisation and self deception.

What do you see when you take that zen like look at this ‘voice of the customer’ thing? Here is what shows up for me: I do not hear the voice of the customer!  There is no voice of the customer! So what is there? Paper, ink, text, diagrams; no human voice speaks.

We, human beings, are masters of self-deception. We are told that being effective with customers starts with customer insight. We are told that being effective involves listening to the voice of the customer. We are told that being effective requires ‘walking in the shoes’ of the customer. What do we do? We get busy with technology centred services that keep Tops and Middles as distant, as insulated, from customers as usual. But now with the illusion of being in contact with the customer!

Before I go on, I wish to make it clear that I am not bashing ‘voice of the customer’ surveying. These surveys, if designed, implemented, and used correctly can provide some useful information. And if the limitations are gotten by those who need to get them (Tops and Middles) then they can be a useful tool. However, this is not what I have experienced. What have I experienced? It occurs to me that many managers use this tools to avoid actually listening to the voice of the customer. And to stay within their comfort zones: the office-corporate environment.

So what does it take to access AND hear the voice of the customer.  I invite you to read and ponder the following (bolding is my work):

How do your decisions affect customers and suppliers? It’s hard for us to imagine this well if we don’t really know the customers and vendors we work with. And we can’t know them if we hardly ever see them. This is one reason why it’s so important to give people a chance to get …., out of their offices, and out of the building, to visit the people they serve.

Whenever manufacturing or design people actually make site visits and see firsthand how customers are using their products, they develop a new insightful imaginative feel for the needs of the customer, and sometimes the plight of the customer. They come face to face with what really works well and what doesn’t work as it should. They hear from other real people what they like and don’t like about the product, what they need and what they’d really like to have if it were just possible. When the end user becomes a face and a voice, a genuine, three dimensional human being, it is much more difficult to ignore his or her interests and needs. This is a natural impetus for good decision making, with the customer’s interest at heart.

– Tom Morris, If Aristotle Ran General Motors

Is this all there is to get another human being – be s/he a customer, an employee, a partner or a supplier?  No. Even in my home I notice that some of us prefer not to be present to that which is so. Why? Because being present to the reality of the impact of our behaviour can be painful especially if we are committed to keeping our existing practices intact.

So what does it take to get another human being: his/her needs, his/her experience, his/her dreams?  I invite you to read-ponder the following:

we need to cultivate a perceptive imagination on two different levels. First, we need imagination on a small scale. We need empathy. You can’t know how you would want to be treated if you were in another person’s shoes unless you can imagine what it would be like to be in his shoes. It is hard to develop empathy in a robust form without getting to know in concrete and detailed ways the people with whom we need to empathise. One of the most important business commandments then should be: Know thy customer. And it’s equal should be: Know thy associate…… Service and empathy must flow through an organisation first if they are to flow out unimpeded to those with whom the organisation does business.

We also need to cultivate imagination on a large scale, a vivid vision for our lives and our businesses. We need an imaginative conception of what we are doing, a big picture for the contribution we are making to the world. We need a map with coordinates to guide us in our concrete day-to-day decisions….. With a powerful ethical vision directing all our thoughts, we don’t need long list of rules to guide us. We are both informed and inspired to do what is right.

– Tom Morris, If Aristotle Ran General Motors

Summing up, if I am to access and hear the richness of the voice of my customers, my associates, my value creation partners, then the starting point is dropping my ego which constantly calls out “Me, me, ME!”. And rigorously embracing practices that call forth fellow feeling; moving from an I-It way of showing up and travelling in the world to the I-Thou mode.  What I have found is that as I do this the workability of my relationships and my effectiveness-impact increases. So does my experience of being alive and being fulfilled.  What about you?

I thank you for your listening and I hope you will cause-create a great weekend for yourselves and your fellow human beings starting with those with whom you are in most intimate contact. And if you happen to be a Top or a Middle and are serious about listening to your customers then leave your office and go talk with real flesh+blood human beings. And note that you will not have listened, really listened, until you humanity (the best of you) has been called forth and put into these encounters with your fellow human beings disguised as ‘customers’.  Incidentally, this is what social really is.

Empowerment: asking and facing the deeper questions

It occurs to me that empowerment matters. It matters enough for me to think about this deeply and search out those who have thought about this deeply.  If it matters deeply enough to you then continue reading. If it does not really matter to you then I advise you to go and do something that you care deeply about.  With that said, lets start.

What difference does empowerment make?

It really matters if the people in your organisation show up empowered. Empowered to do great work, to create products which show up as ‘magic’, to touch customers in a way that leaves those customers feeling welcomed-understood-validated-helped, to generate an end to end customer experience that simplifies-enriches the lives of your customers.

It really matters, if you, show up as empowered and create a context that allows the people in your business to show up empowered. And allows your customers to show up and experience themselves as empowered.  And creates a space for your suppliers to show up empowered – empowered to share their knowledge and expertise in contributing to the performance of your organisation.

It really matters, if as customers, we show up empowered. Empowered to do business with organisations that stand for purposes-values-behaviours that speak to us. And not do business with organisations that do not stand for and embody that which matters to us. Empowered to get together and apply pressure on regulators and those in government to put in place legislation that protects our interests as customers and to enforce the existing legislation.  We are also empowered to do nothing.  That is our choice; choice is that which comes with empowerment.

In short, empowerment or the lack of it matters.  It occurs to me that empowerment is rather like sunshine in the western world (in the depths of winter) or rain in a region of cursed with drought.  Empowerment creates possibilities which simply are not open-present without the existence-presence of empowerment.

Perhaps because I am so vividly present to the significance and possibility that inheres in empowerment, I chose to put my children in Montessori School.  It occurs to me that it is also the reason that so much of what is written on empowerment (employees, customers) strikes me as shallow and leaves me feeling disappointed-cheated.

Why all the bleating about the lack of empowerment? 

There are two particular aspects of the empowerment conversation that I particularly wish to highlight.  First, there is the assumption that empowerment is a thing to be gifted from the Tops to the Middles and Bottoms.  And from the Middles to the Bottoms. And from the company to customers. Second, is the assumption that empowerment is a blessing and people are yearning to be empowered.

It occurs to me that by virtue of being human you and I are always empowered. You and I are empowered because you and I are free – free to choose. It occurs to me that Sartre spelled this out rather pithily:

Man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

What shows up for me as being a more interested enquiry is this one, given that you and I are empowered why is it that you and I evade this empowerment?  Why all the bleating about empowerment – more precisely the lack of empowerment?  What is it that we are evading through this bleating on the lack of empowerment? Why this supplication at the feet of ‘leaders’?  And why is it that so few ‘leaders’ actually show us as being empowered to chart their own course, and thus lead?

Werner Erhard’s profound insight on empowerment

I share with you the profound insight and wisdom of Werner Erhard. And I encourage you (and I) to listen, really listen to his speaking:

If you are empowered, you suddenly have a lot of work to do because you have the power to do it.

If you are unempowered, you are less dominated by the opportunities in front of you. In other words, you have an excuse to not do the work. You have a way out. You have the security of being able to do what you have always done and get away.

If you are empowered, suddenly you must step out, innovate and create.

The cost, however, of being unempowered is people’s self-expression. They always have the feeling that they have something in them that they never really gave, never really expressed.

By simply revealing the payoffs and costs of being unempowered, people have a choice. They can begin to see that it is possible to make the choice to be empowered rather than to function without awareness.

Empowerment requires a breakthrough and in part that breakthrough is a kind of shift from looking for a leader to a sense of personal responsibility.

The problems we now have in communities and societies are going to be resolved only when we are brought together by a common sense that each of us is visionary. Each of us must come to the realization that we can function and live at the level of vision rather than following some great leader’s vision.

Instead of looking for a great leader, we are in an era where each of us needs to find the great leader in ourselves.”

— Werner Erhard

So what does it take for empowerment to show up?

It occurs to me that it takes the following for empowerment to show up in our way of being-in-the-world:

a) Getting that we are always-already empowered as spelled out by Sartre and so vividly illustrated by Viktor Frankl in his recounting of his concentration camp experiences (Man in Search of Meaning);

b) Caring deeply enough about our being-in-the-world to see-invent possibilities. Possibilities for putting our own ‘dent in the universe’.

c) Courage to put ourselves at risk and act – to live from and into the possibilities that speak to us, to give up comfort and embrace work, to let go of our existing identity and invent-create-embrace the identity that is needed to fulfil on the possibility that we have invented.

What do you say?

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.

The importance of the 3V’s to customer-based strategy

How do you go about developing a customer-based strategy?

If you are a strategist you will have come across all kinds of frameworks including: 5 Forces(Porter); Core Competencies (Hamel & Prahalad); Ansoff’s Matrix; BCG’s Growth-Share Matrix; 7S McKinsey Model; GE-McKinsey Matrix; 3Cs (Kenichi Ohmae); PEST(LE) model; SWOT analysis; IDIC (Peppers & Rogers)…..   Each was developed in a particular era, for a particular problem and represents a particular point of view about what matters in shaping success.

In addition to these frameworks, I’d like to suggest the 3V’s – Vision, Values and the Value Proposition.

Vision

Valeria Maltoni at the Conversation Agent has spelled out the value of having a Vision Statement.  I am going to take her lead and explore the Virgin Group especially as I had the good fortune to provide digital marketing services to the Virgin brand some years ago and walked away impressed at the culture, the customer orientation and how we (the supplier) were treated.  If you take a look at the Virgin website you find the following statements:

  • “We have always succeeded in business by offering consumers another way, a better way and being willing to fight their corner.”
  • “Our lifestyle is the way that we choose to live our lives – the things we buy, the things we believe – it is who we are. As global citizens we want to provide people with products and services that will help them to embrace a more sustainable lifestyle.”
  • “Our vision is to contribute to creating happy and fulfilling lives which are also sustainable – surely a vision worth aspiring to?”
  • “We believe that we have a part to play in making this a reality and so our vision for sustainability within the Virgin Group is: “to make a credible contribution towards sustainable lifestyles whilst meeting or exceeding the expectations of our staff, customers and other stakeholders”.”
  • “We want our Virgin companies to provide responsibly produced, sustainable, low carbon services and products that are desirable, easy to use and good value above all else so that our customers can enjoy their lifestyles safe in the knowledge that Virgin is acting responsibly on their behalf.”

What is the point of putting forth a Vision Statement?  Let me say that is no point in a Vision Statement if it is just a PR exercise or a desperate attempt to revive flagging fortunes.  The power of a Vision Statement lies in its ability to enroll a diversity of actors (Tops, Middles, Bottoms, Customers, Suppliers…) in an inspiring point of view on the future such that they co-operate in moving towards and creating that future.  This means that first and foremost the Vision Statement has to be authentic for the leader who crafts, speaks and lives it.  Notice the last point:  the Vision Statement lives to the extent that it is lived.  The more people that live it the more likely it is that the vision will become reality.

Values

You and I might craft the same Vision Statement and yet go about it very differently.  Why? Because our values (and beliefs) are very different.  For example, in the ‘struggle’ for independence from British rule in India several leading figures wanted the same thing – to bring an end to British rule and rule themselves as a people – yet some leaders valued taking up arms, others valued pleasing the British and Gandhi valued non-violent resistance.

Here is what Virgin says about values:

“The Virgin brand values have remained unchanged for 40 years. They aren’t just an image but a reflection of our very essence and the way we do business. Virgin has always stood for value for money, quality, innovation, fun and a sense of competitive challenge. But now our brand values have gone three dimensional; we no longer have a list of brand values but a brand cube to which we have added the Wellbeing & Happiness of People and Sustainability of the Planet. “

Made up values are cooked up to brainwash the intended audience and in that sense are simply the lipstick that hides the pig.  They are an either an attempt to hoodwink the gullible, a good sounding slogan or simply a desperate attempt to turn an also ran into a contender (think back to the highly successful Avis campaign “We try harder”).   Which makes me ponder about British Airways suddenly finding its core values: “To fly, to serve”.  Is it authentic?  I don’t know.  Will it lift its fortunes?  Possibly.

Real – authentic – values act both as guides and as constraints on what you will and will not do and how you will conduct yourself. One of the essential aspects of strategy is choosing what courses of action you will take and what courses of action you will not take.  Real values also have another advantage they allow you find / attract value chain partners – it is simply easier to do business with those that hold the same values as yourself and arguably it is more fun as well.

Value Proposition

In my way of thinking the Value Proposition is where you spell out your promise to your target customers.  It is where you take all of your insights about yourself, your target customers, your competitors and the world at large and spell out what your customers can count on you for. If you get the Value Proposition right then you will attract hordes of customers.  If you actually deliver on the Value Proposition – the customer experience delivers the value proposition – then you will keep customers and they will get more customers for you through word of mouth.

Let’s take a look at the Value Propositions for Richer Sounds (award-winning high street electronics retailer); TED (one of my favourite sites); and John Lewis (renowned for customer service):

Richer Sounds:  “Biggest Brands, Best Prices, Expert Advice…and take it home today!“;

TED: “Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world”; and

John Lewis:  “Free Standard UK Delivery on Orders Over £30”; “Click and Collect From Our Shops”; “International Delivery”; and “Never Knowingly Undersold.

Conclusion

It is worth thinking about what you stand for in the world (Vision, Values) and clearly articulating the promise that you are making / the bargain that you are striking with your target customers (Value Proposition).  Why? Because these are fundamental strands of a customer-based strategy.  What do you think?