A Youthful (But Educated) View of the Enterprise Customer-Centric Journey

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Several months ago, I was interviewed by a young Masters of Science in Marketing Management student, Carmen van Den Hemel, from Tilburg University in The Netherlands. She told me that her discussion with me was one of several professionals and academic contacts, including Jagdish Sheth, she was making. She was in the process of preparing her thesis, the overall objective of which was to identify the barriers and enabling factors of enterprise customer-centricity and also offer directions for both organizations and for further study based on these insights. She was a very well-informed questioner, and it was my pleasure to participate.

As stated early in her thesis document, the goal was as follows: “This research identifies factors that facilitate organizations in their journey towards customer centricity, as well as fundamental issues and challenges that typically hinder organizations from becoming customer-centric. These are related to firm-specific antecedents (individual, intra-organizational, inter-organizational, and instrumental) and marketplace antecedents of customer centricity.” From my perspective, these important subjects can always benefit from investigation.

Here is how she expressed the core and extended questions to be addressed by her research:

What are the fundamental factors that favor or hinder an organization to consistently place the value perceptions of its customers at the center?

1. What are the main characteristics of a customer-centric organization?
2. What should a (product or services) organization do in order to achieve a higher level of customer centricity?
3. What are the most important factors favoring or hindering an organization in being customer-centric?
4. Which practical implications do the findings provide for organizations that are striving to be customer-centric?

There was also a more detailed follow-on question list, too lengthy to be covered here.

In her comprehensive set of references, she went back as far as 1960 (Theodore Levitt’s seminal book, Marketing Myopia), and she drew ideas about the customer-centric journey from scholars such as Roland Rust, Jay Galbraith, V.Kumar, George Day, the aforementioned Jagdish Sheth, Peter Fader, Adrian Payne, and C. K. Prahalad. On the professional side, here references included material from Bob Thompson, Patricia Seybold, and Fred Reichheld, among a number of others.

As noted at the outset of her thesis, Ms van den Hemel stated: “About thirty percent of the Fortune 500 firms including Intel, Dell, IBM, and American Express have situated customer centricity at the center of their business practices as a way to achieve a competitive advantage and this number is still growing all the time”. She looked at the way multiple companies – John Lewis, Zappos, Amazon, Zane’s Cycles, etc. – design and execute around customer-centric concepts.

The foundation statement which most caught my attention was: “…the path towards customer centricity is a long and extensive one. It is not something that changes overnight, rather an evolution than a revolution takes place. A true journey towards customer centricity is driven by a rethinking of many aspects of the organization. This study demonstrates that in order to achieve customer centricity a number of preliminary steps have to be undertaken to facilitate customer centricity, such as assuring an agile culture, turning the traditional corporate pyramid with management on top and the front-line employees at the bottom upside down, reactive learning from active customer involvement as well as pro-active and forward looking behavior, revising the reward systems, aligning functional departments, and considering when limiting the range of choice increases customer value. In addition, a number of barriers have to be faced, including dealing with shareholders’ obsession over quarterly numbers and counteracting a culture of fear and judgment.” A lot of real-world, practical clarity is expressed there.

While there is detailed discussion of both conclusions and potential for future research, here is the gist of what she identified as implications coming from her study: “Adopting customer centricity is an extensive change that requires a rethinking of many aspects of the organization. First and foremost, this research implies that rather than pushing out products or services, organizations have to understand the needs of customers before developing or finding offerings for them. Therefore, it is extremely important to gain a thorough understanding of customers. In this respect, both the literature and field study elucidated the relevance of customer interaction in gathering a deep understanding of customers. However, this research substantiates extant literature by arguing that it is important for organizations to assure that each and every employee is spending sufficient time with the customer, whatever their level or function is. Nonetheless, even more important in enabling customer centricity is the role of management. In order to enhance the customer-oriented behaviors of employees, management has to create a working environment in which employees are supported, facilitated and motivated to serve the customer.” From my perspective, she’s nailed the essentials of moving an enterprise toward a natural, or obsessed and focused, level of customer-centricity and customer experience optimization.

With students like Ms van den Hemel moving into the professional world, the future of customer-centricity would appear to be in good hands.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.

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