Observing Customer-Centricity From An Outside Perspective


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Ever since I began aligning my thinking to customer-centricity and an outside-in approach to life, I’ve seen good and bad examples everywhere. Gee, you’d think being a CRM consultant would have exposed me to this on a daily basis. Well, it did. I just wasn’t paying attention to it. Many in my field, including myself, were more focused on the technology of things. And more often than not, the only criticism we had was that we were only dealing with the sales organization; or worse, the IT department. When I looked back at where I started my career, this technology focus really started to bug me.

For the past few years I’ve started breaking down companies I visit into their respective locations on the customer-centric maturity scale. Well, “a” customer-centric maturity scale. There are a number of scales out there. One post I wrote reflected my opinion on the complexity of some models. Then there is the new book by Ranjay Gulati that identifies the pillars of a resilient organization. Not really a linear scale but great cornerstones for laying the ground work. Either way you look at things, knowing where a company is will help you understand how far they need to go in order to become resilient. And you, if you’re a consultant, need to know this if you’re intention is to communicate with your clients effectively.

When It Looks Like Spaghetti – Beware of the Sauce

Very often, because it’s my job, I get involved with trying to understand “as-is” process. You’d think it was to be able to demonstrate how silly it was and come up with a better idea, but it’s usually done simply to highlight features of software. After all, we’re in the software game, right? Well, we all know we shouldn’t be, but since the selling process starts with a lead from a software vendor, you’re kind of stuck on that one. Many companies have already made up their mind what the solution is by the time they contact you.

In fact, the solution to nearly every problem I’ve ever seen in a business has nothing to do with software. Ultimately, some well selected software can be a great help to get those extra few percent of operational efficiency. But, the dramatic improvements in capacity – even while surgically trimming your business resources (people) – are going to come through higher level strategic thinking, leadership and cultural change.

Take for example the recent Powerpoint slide that was used to explain the problems for the U.S. Military in Afghanistan. Now, I’m not trying to undermine the Military, because they can be masters at logistics and strategy. But, this slide is so funny because it reminds me of many customer engagements I’ve had.

No, on the surface of things you never get this picture presented. It’s usually when we get deeper into designing system solutions that seemingly silly questions on my part will elicit a response that goes well beyond the bounds of silliness measurement. Paint a large office cubicle around this picture, and you will enter the world of the lower level supervisor who has been given free reign to independently build their work process empire.

You have to paint a cubicle around it, because it was designed with only one thing in mind. My needs. Not the needs of the functional silo next door. Trust me, they’ve got the same silliness going on over there. So, they’ve ignored their silly neighbors – oh yea, they still love to make fun of the other silo for their silly process – and ultimately, and more importantly, they’ve ignored their customers.

From a customer’s point of view, a silly internally focused process can look like a slow response, no response, the wrong response, a handed off response- and handed off – and handed off. It can also look like an invasive response, where the burden is put back on the customer to continue the process; because it’s more convenient for the inside people that way.

How the heck do companies get to this point?  And when they realize how desperate the situation is getting, isn’t the answer always to throw more human resources at the problem? That’s the successful manager’s secret spaghetti sauce in their world of entangled, slippery process noodles. Cover it up with sauce and let someone else worry about it.

The thing is, a long held set of complicated, internally focused processes is a warning system for me that they also don’t understand customer needs. Not just the customer experience needs, but that they are not adapting over time. If you are focused from the outside -> in, you will inevitably have to re-evaluate how you do things. Your customers change, and so do their needs.

And you don’t need to be a big company to mess this up. Employees at small companies can build a career around a process they own. And don’t try to take it away.  Ethel and Jimbo won’t like that one bit!

Does A Customer Need Your Product More Than They Need To Do Their Job?

I’ve been in so many client companies that are seemingly successful. Joe, over there, well he’s been here 30 years, and so has his wife Ethel, and Jimbo over there 25 years. You know the story. A dreary office / manufacturing / warehouse scenario with decor from the 1970’s. Heck, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Companies like this have sometimes had great success.

When you begin digging in you find that their products are pretty much the same as they were 30 years ago, sometimes with computerized updates instead of switches and tubes. But, nevertheless, it’s pretty much the same. You’ll also notice that, adjusted for inflation and all that, they really haven’t been growing at all. Sure, the owner’s doing fine, but they’re simply too satisfied to find the key to growth – innovation.

The interesting thing is that these companies think they are dominating their market – and in their way of looking at it, they are because no one is competing with them product for product. Here’s the rub, the market left them behind because the jobs of their potential customers have changed over the years. While they sat idly by all happy with themselves, the world had moved on. And if you look hard enough, you will see that the companies that could’ve bought their product 30 years ago, operate in a totally different way today.

This difference is the way that innovators zero in on the problem. They look at the job, not the product, and find gaps, holes and breakdowns that they can solve.  They don’t ask a customer how they can improve their product because it will focus the customer on their product and what it does, not on their job and the opportunities you’ll find there. Then they change their products or services, or create brand new ones, to take advantage of what they’ve learned.

These are the companies with the shiny new buildings. These are the companies that are kicking butt. And while they may not truly be customer-centric day to day, a key element – in my mind – to customer centricity is understanding the jobs of your customers so you can address the needs of the job – usually through continually innovative ideas. And don’t stop just because you had one successful innovation.

Every Business Is Different

So what does the perfectly resilient, customer-centric company look like? I haven’t seen it. But let me give you a example. How many of you have watch Holmes on Homes on the HGTV? It’s a reality show about a guy named Mike who happens to build houses. And he builds them well.  Unfortunately, that cannot be said for many of the other builders out there. In fact, he takes jabs at the government too for having code standards that are well below par, and inspectors that get fooled by silly attempts to hide code violations.

Throughout his show, he goes into the home of someone who has been ripped off and left for dead, so to speak. A contractor has come in, made promises, lied, and leaves the job unfinished or defective. It’s not about the home owners. It’s about the quick buck – and the easiest way to a quick buck is just the easiest way. Living up to the expectations of your customers just seems so hard. Heck, Mike comes in and rips down everything and rebuilds it from scratch. Simple! Generous? Yes. But, he’s trying to make something right that was very very wrong.

Getting back to customer-centricity, beyond just doing the job well – which he and his team do – they learn about the homeowner and their situation. Equate the situation to the job. Everyone has struggles. Some have a handicapped child. Maybe the homeowner is elderly and has no one living with them. In these cases, Mike Holmes not only completes a project well above code – so he won’t have to do it again – he adds little things that mean a lot.

Take for example an episode I just saw where he was dealing with a bathroom project for an older woman living on Paradise Island in Canada. There were a lot of things about that project that he redid differently not because he had to, but because it made sense. It was a lot of hard work. But, in the midst of all that, instead of focusing on how hard his job was, he recognized that the walkway from boat landing to the house had a railing on the safe side and not on the downside where there was a danger of falling back into the water and on the rocks.

Not only that, the lighting was broken and ineffective. So, he built a new railing on the correct side, at the correct height and put low energy pod lighting on timers inside the floor boards. He also put a new non-slip surface down. Let’s see, he knew this older lady was there all by herself and that she wouldn’t be able to use this new bathroom if she fell down and broke her neck. Hmmm.

Did he make any money off that? No not directly, and this is a charitable show. But! If he’s doing these things in the course of doing business, his business is going to boom because he’s creating advocates, not just loyal customers. In fact, if he’s doing his job right, his customers won’t be calling again – at least not while they live in the house he built. He may even get a television gig!

Summing It Up

To some people this whole customer-centricity thing comes naturally. The group gets even smaller when you factor in the will to withstand the pressures of the historical business school thought.  It’s tough to transform a business this way from below. And I can tell you that it’s nearly impossible to do it as a consultant when you’ve been brought in through the cellar door.

However, it’s worth trying. And I do. Probably at the risk of my job sometimes. Because in the end you’ve gotta get the deal because something is better than nothing – the easy path in life. The pressure against a change like this is great. Is the good news that I hear more companies talking about loyalty and other such things? Maybe, until you dig a bit and find that they think it can be measured by a single survey and a simple and flawed score. No, the good news is that there are a lot of people talking about these things today.

Eventually, it will gain a foothold. Will every company be willing to do the hard work necessary to reshape their culture and redesign the way they do business? Or will they simply work hard to keep their heads above water?  Either way, it’s hard work, one just sounds easier.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. Mike, thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    You point out an interesting problem, though. It’s hard to change when the internal metrics (for the owner, at least) look OK. Just keep on doing what you’re doing, because it appears to be “working.” And change is hard, so why bother if you’re paying the bills?

    Unless the business leader looks into the market and see how customers and competitors are changing, the problem is that one day the day of reckoning will come. And then it’s probably too late to save the business.

    Like that old story about putting a frog into a pot of water and then slowly turning up the heat. The frog cooks to death when the hear increases gradually, never motivated to jump out and look for cooler waters.


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