Digging into ‘customer-centricity’: what is the defining feature of a ‘customer-centric’ company?

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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.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

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

4 COMMENTS

  1. “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.””

    I always wonder about any statement that it off putting to some potential customers. A reasonably significant number of Americans are atheists and may not take kindly to a company’s missions “to glorify God.” Research even suggests that the number of atheists is increasing as the generation coming of age is much less religious.

    “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.””

    As a professor who does research in this area, the goal for people “to discover anything they might want to buy online” is the reason why Amazon lets independent vendors sell on its site, sometimes in direct competition with what Amazon is selling. An announcement by Amazon stated that the company gets 30% of its sales from these outside vendors. Amazon has positioned itself as the seller with the largest inventory based in part on this strategy and therefore the first place to look. I would guess, however, that they are not losing profits since their commission charges are much higher than those of their competitors.

  2. I really connected with the more customer centric visions. Our organsition is service based and being customer centric is something I am implementing in the organisation.
    Customer Service @ Moreland: Our business is service; to be responsive and to delight our customers
    I hope our vison can inspire the team and our cusotmers

  3. Hello Bob

    You make a good point and point towards the “inauthentic” orientation that is considered acceptable, good practice and smart way to do business. Put differently most organisations speak through the voice of PR. That is why I was so taken back by the Chick-a-Fil purpose. It takes courage to write that because you put yourself at risk. And isn’t that why it smacks of authenticity. I also suspect that there are some of us who would prefer to work for, supply, buy from such an organisation as opposed to one that worships at the alter of PR, economics and sheer greed.

    As for Amazon I do not know about the economics. I do know that they have clearly spelled out what job they will enable customers to do, the value they Re up for creating for customers. And that is in a ver different league to the bland, self-centred egotistical mission statements that are the norm.

    Maz

  4. Hello Tracie
    You and I are standing in the same place because we are seeing, thinking, feeling the same. The customer oriented vision/mission statements connect with us at an emotional level.

    When it crafting an inspiring vision/mission/motto then how about getting your people involved in crafting that. How about setting up a challenge, inviting people to participate, sharing what they come up with, allowing people to modify, and voting to choose the winner? I say that are more likely to generate a vision/mission/motto that will appeal to your people and be lived by them. You might want to read my latest post which poses the question: where does customer focus, customer obsession, customer centricity reside.

    All the best
    Maz

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