A brief (personal) point of view on the state of customer-centricity

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Is it possible for a man/woman to have a lot of wealth and do lots of stuff that generates wealth and yet for that man/woman to be ‘not wealthy’? If you read that without pausing for thought you might say “That is nonsense, he’s gone nuts!” I am not going to argue the point with you. I simply ask you read that again. Now I pose a related question: is it possible for a man/woman to have no wealth and yet be wealthy? Before you answer “No!” I ask you think about the tales travellers tell about the remarkable hospitality and generosity of the poor – who happily share the little that they have.

Now I am ready to share my observation on customer-centricity with you. As I look at the world of business and especially all things Customer I am stuck by the following: just about everyone wants the fruits of customer-centricity (higher revenues, higher profits, higher profit margins) and plenty of organisations are doing lots of Customer stuff (customer insight, customer engagement, customer experience, CRM, customer strategy, customer marketing…) yet remarkably few are actually BEING customer-centric at the level of the organisation.

Does that matter? Yes it matters a huge amount. In zen there is the concept of “effortless effort” or “actionless action”: being customer-centric (starting with the Tops) is the source of this “effortless effort”. Does this strike you as a bit abstract. Think about it this way: when you genuinely care that caring effortless expresses itself in the most appropriate way in the circumstances at hand. On the other hand if you do not care then you have to go to a lot of effort to learn techniques to come over as being caring and hope that the other person does not notice. The issue is that this tends to wear you out (pretense takes its toll). Also the mask tends to fall off when you are under pressure. Finally, the persons on the other end aren’t always taken in by the techniques – there is certain quality that comes across with genuine caring.

Take a good look at people like Chris Zane, Tony Hsieh, Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz and Steve Jobs – you might find that their BEING is or was the ‘difference that makes/made the difference’. When I read about the transformations that Howard Schultz and Steve Jobs brought about in their organisations I am struck by their BEING – as human beings, as professionals, as CEOs and as leaders. They bought a certain quality to their organisations that set their organisations alight – to create and deliver stuff that enriched the lives of their customers. People who did not want to play that game left. The people who stayed were the people who were up for playing the game that these guys orchestrated: customer-centricity, excellence, customer experience…

Incidentally, BEING customer-centric at the ORGANISATIONAL level is the source of superior performance. I stress the importance of the organisational component: think how easy it is to snap a twig, not put a hundred twigs together (aligned) and snap them – hard isn’t it. Yet even this is sometimes not enough – sometimes change comes along (economic, regulatory, new competitors) that so changes the playing field that the dominant players stumble. Think of it as the fire that tears through the forest and gives life to the dormant seeds. Even Apple will one day lose its crown just like Tesco is on its way to losing its halo of invulnerability and customer-centricity through data mining. If you have not heard of Tesco then it worth knowing that Tesco has been the dominant grocery retailer in the UK for many years. Its success was put down to the loyalty card and the way that data was used for segmentation, customer marketing and product selections at Tesco stores. This Christmas Tesco has stumbled signficantly.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great points, Maz. There’s a lot involved in making a customer-centric enterprise work well. Processes, experience, technology, training… the list goes on.

    It’s relatively easy to pick any one of these, find opportunities for improvement, get to work and see some benefits. And each of these areas has industries full of consultants and vendors offering to help!

    But the LEADER is the real secret to how companies get to the top of their industry and stay there for a long time. I can’t think of one example of a truly great brand that doesn’t have a truly great leader. And such leaders don’t come along every day.

    I’m sorry to read that Tesco is losing its way. I don’t live in the UK so I don’t have personal experience shopping there. But one of my favorite stories is about the Tesco loyalty program and how it was used to help them improve their marketing and the in-store experience. Good example of left-brain analytics driving right-brain experience.

    I interviewed Clive Humby a few years ago in Tesco Shines at Loyalty: An Interview With Clive Humby. Here’s a quote that sums up their approach:

    Tesco has their tag line “every little helps,” and that’s really the value we bring, which is: Everything you receive from us should feel like it’s a little bit of help. A lot of little things add up to trust, and I actually think it’s about the brand. I think, ultimately, it’s really about brand marketing, which is, “What does your brand stand for?” and how to reinforce what your brand stands for in the customers’ eyes in everything that you do.

    Getting on top is hard. Staying there is harder! It doesn’t bode well for Apple in the coming years. You just can’t replace someone like Steve Jobs.

  2. Maz –

    Completely agree with your perspective. Leadership is all about defining and influencing the customer-centric culture of an organization. Culture is ‘style’, the way an enteprise shapes behavior, motivates and links staff members, and carries out processes and relationships. In addition to the five leaders you’ve cited, more come to mind as paradigms of customer-centric culture-shaping: Sam Walton, Ray Kroc, Hal Rosenbluth, Dave Thomas, Walt Disney, Herb Kelleher, Fred Smith, Stanley Marcus….and even Stew Leonard.

    Some years ago, Max DePree (former CEO of Herman Miller Furniture) defined the leader’s role and contribution to a customer-centric culture very well for me: “The difference is not one of skill or education or experience. It’s a matter of values. To be customer-oriented is not to be self-oriented” (Leadership Jazz, The Free Press, 1994)

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