It takes a community (to make Customer Centricity work)

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Summarizing the content of my previous 5 articles in this series on the value of CARE, “the unbeatable strategy of loving customers” (quote taken from the title of Fred Reichheld’s latest book published December ’21), creates a checklist that you can use as a discussion guideline for dialogue with your colleagues about “we are going to put the customer first” or “we put the customer first (right?)” and concepts such as ‘customer centricity’ and ‘customer intimacy’. Because despite the fact that everyone is talking about customer journeys, and customer experience, customers (and people who work on the front line) are becoming less and less happy with their experiences with companies and this is reflected in the reputations of companies and organizations. Exceptions excluded.

Companies and organizations struggle with turning words into deeds. The purpose of this series is to provide a helping hand to you to actually make it happen. Because ‘putting our customers at the heart of everything we do’, moving from talking about it to actually doing & being it, every day, consistently, takes a community. It can’t be delegated to the front line, or to the ‘worker-bees’ of an organization. It’s everybody’s job.

Customer centricity checklist

c Care is energy! Pretending to care costs energy. Acting from a source of genuine care generates energy. Care creates results that exceed expectations. Care supercharges your organization.
c Care creates meaning. Care makes us think and feel. It is what makes people’s actions human. Hence, care is what makes your organization human. An organization that does not care cannot create meaning for people, be it employees or customers.
c Care implies an essential form of involvement with the world, creates shared value and serves
People, Planet & Profit.
c Consumers want organizations to care (more) about them. Companies want sustainable and profitable growth. Care is the key.
c Customer advocacy cannot be enforced. You can hope to generate it. You cannot pay a customer a premium to be an ambassador.
c Deploying Care for the sustainability of your internal and external reputation, perceived value, competitive advantage, and profitability requires a transformational process, a learning and development process. It’s a journey that touches the core of your organization. A journey that consists of four phases, seeing differently, thinking differently, acting differently, to be different, as a person, and an organization. Four phases in which the people in your organization (can, are allowed and dare to) look critically at the usual way of doing (business) in your organization.
c Care requires a change from task-oriented to results-oriented working, from ‘I’ to ‘we’.
c Care requires a strong sense of purpose, a dream that is shared across the organization. An ambition that goes beyond words. Mission, vision and values made tangible and translated into a dream, and a shared language.
c Care requires strategic alignment across silos, and alignment of short (current) and long-term (the next three to five years) strategic goals and actions.
c Activating Care requires multidisciplinary teams consisting of people from different hierarchical levels in the organization, from the shop floor to the board. In this way coherence, consistency and continuity between what is felt, thought, said and done come to life; between who you are, who you say you are and who people say you are.


c Governance that balances quantity and quality as perceived by employees and customers; output (internally driven, efficiency, operational excellence), and impact (external perspective, defined by perceptions of employees and customers).
c Operational excellence is a prerequisite. Unless you want your front line, customer facing employees to spend the majority of their time righting the wrongs of the organization. People are your most expensive resource, so ask yourself, is this resource better spent on creating game-changing experiences whilst customers self-service for the mundane, low value tasks and actions?

c A safe and brave environment, in which your employees can safely change their behavior and learn from their mistakes. Generating customer advocacy means moving beyond training, beyond protocols telling employees what they have to feel, think, say and do. Behavior that is internally driven breathes the authentic quality that makes all the difference in the perception of your customers. It requires that your employees are advocates for your company. Employee advocacy is a prerequisite for generating customer advocacy. What’s inside, will leak out! Consistency between what employees feel and think, and what they say and do touches customers at an emotional level. It creates customer experiences that feel authentic, and charge the ‘emotional contract’ of your customers. That have a positive impact on the reputation of a company. Conversely, inconsistency creates experiences that feel unreal to your (employees and) customers and generate negative customer advocacy.
c Customer centricity puts different demands on culture and leadership. As a leader it requires you to create ‘space’ for your employees to bring more to their job than the capacity to ‘pick up the phone’. To create freedom to be, and room for play to truly listen to and connect with customers. To use their moral wisdom in the job: A wise person knows when and how to make an exception to every rule.
c Leaders are the gardeners who ensure fertile soil, sufficient light and sufficient water. You create the environment in which the garden can grow and flourish optimally, without guarantees (control) but certainly influence. Management by objectives. A climate of safety and trust. When people build trust and weaken their defenses, you see an increase in openness and honesty, more autonomy, assertiveness and self-direction, more vulnerability, intimacy and freedom, a release of roles and stereotypes, and an increase in mutual involvement.

c The art is to build a healthy ecosystem in which words and actions are consistent, quality and quantity are in balance and the intangible is weighed just as heavily as the tangible, based on an essential form of involvement with the world, employees, customers, shareholders and all other stakeholders of the organization.

c Last but not least, it takes time. Building and maintaining a service-based culture is no small feat. Authentic and intrinsic behavior of employees cannot be programmed. Consumers cannot be misled. Generating advocacy is not something that can be achieved overnight. It takes time to change behavior, to create consistency and continuity over time, at all levels, individual, departmental, cross-departmental, organizational as well as the outside world, customers, the market and society. It takes time to gain trust. What does not benefit credibility is that companies and organizations have all too easily said “we are now really going to put the customer first”, whereby no noticeable experiential follow-up has been given to these words for both employees and customers.

Harvest

The results you will harvest are multiple, multi-level and multi-disciplinary. Like with all seeds, it will take some time before you are able to harvest. Depending on your starting situation, it may take anything between one and three years before you can harvest. An anonymized example:

  • Turnaround of the reputation of the brand from worst to best in class (brand value) and award winning.
  • Operational efficiency (in an already ‘operationally excellent’ organization) increased with another 20 percent.
  • Sickness ratios and turnover decreased.
  • Customer satisfaction increased 30 percent.
  • NPS improved from minus 30 to plus 30.
  • Customer churn decreased 30 percent.
  • Share of wallet increased with 1.5 product per customer.
  • Sales by customer care increased over 200 percent.
  • Customer Acquisition Cost decreased 30 percent.
  • CLV (customer lifetime value) increased.
  • Profitability increased.
  • Outperforming the market on (autonomous) new sales in saturated markets.

License to operate

Many examples of companies that owe their success to customer advocacy can be found in the online world. In Winning on Purpose; the unbeatable strategy of loving customers, Reichheld describes an abundance of examples. But the best examples are those small local retailers who know your likes and dislikes, and have been with people, and often their families, for many years. Are their products unique? Are they cheap(-er)? No! It is their consistently personal, relevant, and unique customer experience that keeps customers coming back, and recommend them to their family and friends. Even nowadays. And in that respect, customer advocacy is a centuries old phenomenon. All companies need to do, is reconnect with their reason for being, their license to operate.

Time

The biggest test will be one of time and patience. It takes time to create consistency and continuity between ‘who you are’, ‘who you say you are’ and ‘who people say you are’. Reputations are not built overnight (though they are ruined overnight). The time required depends on the current reputation of the company. The worse the reputation, the more time it will take. It also takes a significant amount of time to change ‘who you are’, the DNA of a company. As it takes time to build trust, to be consistent and prove to the (employees and the) customers time and again that the company genuinely cares.

Conclusion

In this age of abundance, with its saturated hypercompetitive marketplaces flooded with commoditized products and services, attractive as customer advocacy may sound to companies in search of a sustainable competitive advantage, it is not a ‘quick fix’. Genuine care is a prerequisite to earn the trust of (your employees and) your customers and, ultimately, maybe, generate their advocacy. Care is relational and situational. You cannot write a protocol for it. It is something that (employees and) customers either feel or they do not. It takes time and self-trust of customer-facing employees to ‘get it right’. It takes an environment that feels safe and is meaningful to them, so that they can give care that is perceived as meaningful by the customers they serve. That is how customer experiences can begin to become game-changing and customers begin to emotionally connect to your brand. Initiatives to generate customer advocacy that are not solidly embedded in the way your company operates -and is lead- are doomed, because customer advocacy, or the lack thereof, has a tangible bottom-line impact.

In the 21st century, consumers define and decide the fate of companies. Consumers who feel tricked will create customer advocacy, but of the negative kind. Marketing expertise is not the main competency required here, but ‘hands-on’ operational expertise. For everyone who works on the customer-facing side of an organization, expertise and involvement are required to manage service strategically and to lead the way for all your co-workers. Organizations that do not care lack a reason for being. Trust is absent, on all levels, from employees to customers to market to society. Everyone has experienced where that leads with the financial-economic crisis of a magnitude never experienced before fresh in our minds, as the COP26 climate deal and the state our planet is in.

In the 21st century, the success of a company can no longer be measured by its value on the stock exchange, but by its heartbeat, its customer advocacy.

This is the final article in a cycle of all together 6 articles in which I set out to heighten your awareness for what Customer Centricity really is, and what it requires to create it. I sincerely hope you enjoyed the cycle, and look forward to any feedback you may have.

Images source: author

References

1. Reichheld, F. (2021) ‘Winning On Purpose’, The Unbeatable Strategy of Loving Your Customers, Bain & Company
2. Wuring, N.C. (2008) ‘Customer advocacy: When you care, people notice’, Booksurge, Charleston, SC
3. Heidegger, M. (1927) ‘Sein und Zeit’, Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen
4. Blanchard, K. and Glanz, B. (2010) ‘The simple truths of service: inspired by Johnny
the Bagger’, Simple Truth LLC
5. Pink, D.H. (2005) ‘A whole new mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future’, pp. 47–50, Riverhead Books, New York
6. TED (2009) Barry Schwartz: ‘On our loss of wisdom’
7. Reichheld, F. (2006) ‘The ultimate question: Driving good profits and true growth’, Harvard Business Press, Cambridge, MA

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