Two Decades of Customer-Centricity ‘Wisdom’: Executive Summary

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When it comes to written content about the subject of organizational customer-centricity, its culture and marketing applications, I’m an admitted ‘active saver’ (not a hoarder). Storage boxes of material in our basement, covering decades of research, articles, presentations, and white papers – my own and that of leading practitioners – are physical testimony to my saving ways.

Maybe it’s a little delusional, but I always think that this treasure trove will be valuable for reference. It must be the writer in me. One of my projects this Summer (actually not my idea, but an assignment given to me by my wife) is going through these boxes and discarding whatever is dated and no longer useful.

As I’ve gone through this material – spanning at least twenty years of accumulation – over the past few weeks (at a rate of one or two boxes a week), my chief discovery with respect to customer-centricity is that, while some things have changed, much remains the same. In building relationships with customers, organizations still tend to progress through several stages: a) customer awareness, b) customer sensitivity, c) customer focus, and d) customer obsession. Here is the ‘executive summary’ version of some conditions of each.

A. Customer Awareness

– Customers are known, but in the aggregate
– Organization believes it can select its customers and understand their needs
– Measurement of performance is rudimentary, if it exists at all; and customer data are siloed
– Traditional, hierarchical, top-down management model, ‘chimneyed’ or ‘smokestack’ communication (goes up or down, but not horizontal) with little evidence of teaming

B. Customer Sensitivity

– Customers are known, but still mostly in the aggregate
– Customer service is somewhat more evident (though still viewed as a cost center), with a focus on complaint and problem resolution (but not proactive complaint generation; internal groups tend to point fingers and blame each other for negative customer issues
– Measurement is mostly around customer attitudes and functional transactions, i.e. satisfaction, with little awareness of emotional relationship drivers
– Principally traditional, hierarchical, top-down management model, ‘chimneyed’ or ‘smokestack’ communication (goes up or down, but not horizontal) with some evidence of teaming (mostly in areas of complaint resolution)

C. Customer Focus

– Customers and both known and valued, down to the individual level, and they are recognized as having different needs, both functional and emotional
– Customer life cycle is front-and-center; and performance measurement is much more about emotion and value drivers than satisfaction
– Service and value provision is regarded as an enterprise priority; and customer stabilization and recovery are goals when problems or complaints arise
– Communication and collaboration with customers, between employees, and between employees and customers is featured
– Management model and style is considerably more horizontal, with greater emphasis on teaming to improve customer value processes

It’s notable that, at this more evolved and advanced stage of enterprise customer-centricity, complaints are thought of more in terms of a life cycle component, and recovery is more of a strategy than resolution: http://www.customerthink.com/blog/customer_complaints_learn_the_real_value_of_getting_the_whole_picture

If knowledge – customer knowledge – is truly power, then ‘knowing’, i.e. understanding the continually changing state of needs and expectations is certainly more reflective of customer focus. Bruce Lee wrote: “Knowledge is fixed in time, whereas knowing is continual. Understanding requires not just a moment of perception, but a continuous awareness, a state of inquiry without conclusion.”

D. Customer Obsession

– Throughout the organization, customer needs and expectations are well understood, and response is appropriate (and often proactive)
– Everyone is involved in providing value to customers – from C-suite to front-line – and everyone understands his/her role (http://www.customerthink.com/article/linking_employee_behavior_to_customer_loyalty_advocacy)
– Customer behavior is recognized as essential to enterprise success, and optimal relationships are sought
– Performance measurement is focused, and shared, on what most monetizes customer behavior (loyalty, emotion, and communication metrics such as bonding and advocacy, replacing satisfaction and recommendation)
– Customer service (along with pipelines and processes) is an enterprise priority, and seen as a vital, and profitable, element of value delivery
– Management model is far more horizontal, replacing traditional hierarchy; and there is an emphasis on teaming to create customer value

Companies that are customer-obsessed, and what makes them both unique and successful, have been extensively profiled. Often, they go so far as to create emotionally-driven, engaged and even branded experiences for their customers: http://www.customerthink.com/blog/creating_advocacy_and_building_relationships_throughout_the_customer_journey_branding_the_exper

Customer obsession, what I refer to as ‘inside-out advocacy’, has been a frequent subject of my blogs and articles: http://www.customerthink.com/article/inside_out_advocacy_creating_and_sustaining_customer_centricity_and_loyalty

One of Albert Einstein’s iconic quotes reflects the complete dedication, of resources and values, needed for an organization to optimize its relationships with customers: “Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason, mastery demands all of a person.” A little high-minded, perhaps, but also right on point.

Bottom line: I’m relearning, and reinforcing earlier concepts, of organizational effectiveness with customers. Who knows what my basement cleaning assignment will next uncover?

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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