Can you fake a customer-centric orientation?


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Computer simulations suggest that over the long term it pays to co-operate and play ‘nice’

Research on competition and co-operation based on computer simulations (read Axelrod’s The Evolution of Co-operation) suggests that ‘tit for tat’ is the most profitable strategy over the long run. What does that mean? In the long run and across different environments, it pays to co-operate whilst remaining vigilant to the possibility/danger of being cheated. Put more simply, you start by being trusting and giving the other party the benefit of the doubt and thereafter you reciprocate: if the other party ‘co-operates’ then you ‘co-operate’ in turn; if the other party ‘defects’ (does not play nice) then you reciprocate by ‘defecting’ (thus punishing the other party).

The real world is more complex: the art of impression management

Real life is more complex. I do not react to what you did; I react to what I think you did. You know that and so that opens up a whole area of possibility called ‘impression management’. If being a virtuous and trustworthy co-operator does not appeal to you or is simply too much work then you can simply focus on the art of persuading others to believe that you are a virtuous and trustworthy individual and/or organisation: you fake it.

In the personal arena this is called the art of personality: personality is like putting on a ‘suit of clothes’ that give off the right impression; it is about learning the right techniques – in fact it is technique driven. Character on the other hand is who you really are: it is what you are really about; it is what you stand for; it is how you behave behind closed doors; it is how you behave when you ‘down’ or on the ‘ropes’. In the organisational arena there is a whole profession and industry dedicated to impression management: the marketing function, the marketing agencies, the PR agencies…

Why am I bring up this point? Because I am wondering if you can fake a customer-centric orientation. Actually that is not true – I do not believe that you can fake it over the long-term. Yet, I continue to be surprised at how some organisation think they can give the impression of being customer centric without actually being ‘customer-centric’ orientation. Allow me to share two examples with you.

The AA ring me to get my feedback but they did not really want my feedback

Yesterday afternoon a friendly chap from the AA rang me and told me that he ‘wanted to get my feedback on the AA as I had recently called the AA for help’. Because I believe it is a great practice – for companies to elicit feedback and customers to give feedback – I agreed even though I was busy. So he spelled out the game 1 for excellent and 5 for poor. Then he proceeded to ask me three questions. First, how do you rate the performance of the person who handled your call for help? Second, how happy are you with how long it took for the mechanic to get to you? Third, how happy are you with the service delivered by the mechanic?

Then this friendly chap asked if my problem had been fixed. “No” was my reply, “Because he was not able to get the faulty part”. Then he asked me “Did the mechanic give you a price for the part?” I responded “Yes, he did. It was in the region of £250.” The AA chap then started selling to me: he told me how the AA had a policy to cover parts. What he did not do was to tell me about the conditions or the price. When I told him that I did not need the service as I was driving a Honda and in the last seven years it had only broken down once (this time) and the only major repair was for some £300. This did not stop this chap. He carried on started selling me something else. Some way through this selling I simply hung up on him. How did the conversation occur to me?

I am left feeling that I was set-up. I am left feeling that the purpose of the call was to sell to me and this was disguised as a request for feedback. And that is what I object to: one thing masquerading as another. If the AA wanted to sell to me then that is what they should have made clear right at the start: “Mr Iqbal you had a breakdown recently and we have one or two offers/products that we believe will be value to you. Are you interested in learning more?” I may have been interested in having that conversation or not. Yet, I would have walked away with a positive attitude towards the AA: they had identified a need, they had then taken the proactive step of alerting me to products that could be of value to me; and they had asked me if I was interested in the conversation.

A customer charter with no heart in it

I was asked for my help in evaluating-improving-constructing a customer charter. When I asked the people why they were constructing a customer charter one person told me that it was for internal purposes – to inspire/guide the employees. The other person on the room disagreed: she thought that it was something that the top management team wanted to publish because they believed that it would help to win more business. Digging into the charter more I noticed that many of the words and sentences sounded great but did not actually commit the company to any specific behaviour that could be measured (by the company or by their customers). It turned out this was intentional.

There had been no soul-searching. There had been no collaborative process to involve the whole company in thinking through what promises that company would be glad to make to customers and the market place. There had been no consideration of what kind of promises are bold – the kind that inspire us, the kind that inspire our customers, the kind that we are willing to ‘go the extra mile’ for. There had been no consideration of other companies that are inspirational in the way that they treat their customers.

The charter lacked heart because ultimately it was empty. It’s real purpose was to simply act as a ‘marketing’ document that would convey the right impression on prospects and partners. And the hope was that this would then lead to more revenues. The funny thing is that the customer charter was not written for existing customers at all. These customers were pretty much going to continue to get what they had been getting. And no real changes were being made to inspire / effect changes in behaviour at the leadership level, the management level or the employee level – at least none that were communicated to me.

My take on this

You can’t fake it. A wonderful concept that I learned from Jonathan Haidt (The Happiness Hypothesis) is that of the ‘Elephant and the Rider’: the subconscious mind, the limbic brain, our innate take for granted always on (24/7) biological and emotional drives can be though of as the ‘Elephant’; and the The ‘rider’ is our rational brain – the neocortex. What this analogy is communicating is that whilst you can talk to the ‘rider’ and get him to act what you find is that sooner the rider gets tired of controlling the elephant. And when that happens the elephant goes exactly where it wants to go. That is why dieting does not work. It is also why New Years resolutions fizzle out. It is also why find sounding missions, values and charters do not work. It is also why a lot of organisations are struggling with creating customer-centric cultures.

You can only create a ‘customer centric’ culture if your elephant buys into it whole-heartedly. How do you know if that is the case? Well when you think about / picture being customer-centric you are inspired, you are moved, you are touched. That is to say that there is an emotional response: it is the kind of response when you find out you are going to be a father or mother or when you find out that one of your children is in danger. If you do not get that emotional response then I guarantee that your rider is thinking ‘customer-centricity’ is a great technique to help me get what I want. And as soon as a better technique comes along then you will jump on it. Or, as soon as it becames hard to practice and apply this technique you will cut corners and ultimately dilute it so that the technique will not deliver its promise. Or you will simply get bored of it and the elephant will do what it wants to do.

If you are crafting a ‘customer charter’ or a ‘customer experience’ or a ‘customer centric orientation’ then it might be useful to ask yourself the question: “Am I willing to stake everything on this?” If not then you might want to think about playing a different game.

What do you think?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Maz Iqbal
Experienced management consultant and customer strategist who has been grappling with 'customer-centric business' since early 1999.


  1. Maz, your post illuminated the core reason why customer-centric businesses create a competitive advantage. Other businesses can use the same technology, hire the same consultants to improve processes, or even send their employees to the same training programs.

    But the firm’s leadership defines the culture, and that can’t be faked.

    The comedian George Burns once said:
    “Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

    Joking aside, with customer-centricity you can’t “fake it until you make it.” Unless, as you said it so well, “you are inspired, you are moved, you are touched” by customers, all the rest doesn’t matter.


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