Strategy and Customer-Centricity: Relax, It’s OK To Be Just OK!


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What Is The Achilles Heel of Strategy?

My colleague and I put our whole selves into our work talking with folks in the business, listening to customer conversations, reviewing research, looking at competitors and trends, looking at various approaches, evaluating these approaches and coming up with optimal course of action for our client and our client’s customers.

To our delight the strategy was accepted-approved by management. A month or so later we got busy on implementation planning. It was during the implementation planning when hard decisions had to be made that the commitment to the digital strategy unravelled. Our clients got the value of pursuing the digital strategy and they found themselves in a particular situation which called forth and drove a different set of choice and actions.

This is the Achilles Heel of strategy, every executive finds himself in a particular situation. And every situation has its own ‘logic’ and a momentum. As such it really it takes something to alter course and make any significant headway. It takes resolve – fierce resolve, the kind of resolve that grabs you and keeps hold of you. It is not the kind of resolve that is created through the intellect.

Why Don’t We Do What We Know We Should Do?

Have you wondered why your organisation sucks at being authentically customer-centric: practicing relationship marketing, client centred selling, pleasing customer service? Have you wondered why it is that your organisation sucks at calling forth the best from your people?

Now and then someone speaks and their speaking is wisdom. Today, I share with you the wisdom of David Maister as articulated in his great book ‘Strategy and the Fat Smoker‘:

“In business, strategic plans are also stuffed with familiar goals: build client relationships, act like team players, and provide fulfilling motivating careers. We want the benefits of these things. We know what to do, we know why we should do it, and we know how to do it. Yet most businesses and individuals don’t do what’s good for them….

The primary reason we do not work at behaviours which we know we need to improve is that the rewards … are in the future; the disruption, discomfort and discipline needed to get their are immediate…..

Our default pattern and why it doesn’t work

When it comes to improving performance at the individual, team or organisational level we tend to follow a self-defeating pattern. I have seen this pattern played out again and again over the last 10+ years as organisations have grappled with relationship marketing, CRM, customer experience, employee engagement, digital. Here’s what David Maister says:

We start self-improvement programs with good intentions, but if they don’t pay off immediately, or if a temptation to depart from the program arises, we abandon our efforts completely – until the next time we pretend to be on the program.

That’s our pattern. Try a little, succumb to temptation, and give up. Repeat until totally frustrated. Unfortunately, there is rarely, if ever, a benefit from dabbling or trying only a little. You can’t get half the benefits of a better marriage by cutting out half your affairs, cure half the problems of alcoholism by cutting out half the drinks or reduce the risks of lung cancer by cutting out half the cigarettes.

You can’t achieve competitive differentiation through things you do “reasonably well most of the time.” You not only cannot dabble, but you also cannot have short-term strategies ….. The pursuit of short-term goals is inherently anti-strategic and self-defeating.

You are either seriously on the program, really living what you have chosen, or you are wasting your time.

Why strategic analysis and listening to customers is not the answer

I worked in an organisation which expended considerably time-effort-cost in doing NPS quarterly. We had access to the voice of the customer. And the voice tended to speak the same tune quarter after quarter. Why? Because the people in the organisation were not willing to change behaviour in any significant way.

Is it possible that setting up VoC listening programs are a ruse? A way of saying to yourself and others that you are serious about improving the customer experience so that you hide your unwillingness to change your behaviour, the behaviour of your team, your organisation? What does David Maister say?

Improving the quality of the analysis is not where the problem lies. The necessary outcome of strategic planning is not analytical insight but resolve.

What are the essential questions of strategy?

If we know the why-what-how of employee engagement, meaningful customer relationships, and customer loyalty then what are the strategic question? Here’s what David Maister says:

The essential questions of strategy are these:

[1] Which of our habits are we really prepared to change, permanently and forever?

[2] Which lifestyle changes are we really prepared to make?

[3] What issues are we really ready to tackle?

Now that’s a different tone of conversation and discussion (and the reason that real debate is so often avoided).

What am I getting at here?

To come up with products that enrich the lives of customers requires resolve, analysis is insufficient. To create-deliver truly personalised-relevent marketing requires resolve, analysis and marketing technology are insufficient. To call forth the kind of service that generates gratitude from customers and makes them feel good about doing business with your organisation requires resolve, analysis-outsourcing-technology are insufficient. To orchestrate an end to end customer experience that calls forth customer loyalty requires formidable resolve, VoC and customer journey mapping are insufficient. Put different, dabbling won’t do; it occurs to me that most are merely dabbling.

I say, it is worth listening to David Maister once more:

There is no shame in aiming for competence if you are unwilling to pay the price for excellence. But don’t try to mislead clients, staff, colleagues or yourself with time-wasting, demoralising attempts to convince them that you are actually committed to pursuing the goal.

Relax, it’s ok to be just ok

As I get present to the world of business as it is and as it is not, I get present to the following and contradicts all the evangelising about customer focus, customer service, customer experience, customer relationships and customer-centricity:

1. Almost all businesses are unexceptional. They provide ok products (that do the job well enough). They provide OK digital real estate (websites, social media, apps, mobile). They provide OK stores. They hire OK people. They provide OK customer service – whether in stores or via the call-centres. And they generate an OK end to end customer experience, by default. As a result they do OK – they survive and make OK profits.

2. It is only against this background of OKness that the exceptional can and does show up. It is because almost all banks and insurance companies are ok that USAA glow so brig and htly. It is because most digital retailers are OK that Amazon shines brightly. It is because most high street retailers are OK that John Lewis and Waitrose (part of the John Lewis Partnership) shine brightly. It is because most organisations provide OK customer service that Zappos and Zane’s Cycles shine brightly.

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, this is a great post, that echoes a point I made some time ago that “strategy is overrated.”

    I don’t mean that companies shouldn’t have good strategy, in much the same way that we all should have a plan for a healthy lifestyle with the right diet and exercise regimen. And yet each year we make New Years resolutions that then fail to keep them because, as Maister said, we are “unwilling to pay the price for excellence.”

    A corollary: the best strategy is the one an organization can and will execute. Not the theoretically “best” plan that consultants might recommend.

    Back to my diet/exercise analogy, this is a multi-billion $ industry with thousands of books with different approaches. What’s the best one? A program you will follow, even if that just means a gentle walk every day and cutting out ice cream for desert!

    That’s why I see customer-centricity not as strategy — at least, not a unique one — but rather routine behaviors or habits that keep the organization in alignment with customers wants, needs and desires.

    Instilling these habits is the hardest work of customer-centric leaders. By comparison, creating a good strategy/plan is easy.

    These days everyone says they want to deliver a great customer experience, be “obsessed” about customers, blah, blah, blah. It means nothing unless the organization changes.

  2. Hello Bob,

    It occurs to me that you and I are in agreement in some respects. It occurs to me that when strategy is ‘doing more of the same and or doing the same slightly differently’ then strategy gets implemented. And probably it does not show up as strategy.

    The issue occurs when strategy involves ‘getting off the couch’ and straight on to competing in the London Marathon. Whilst this shows up as logical for strategist, it shows up very differently for those who have to change including the Tops.

    Here, it is worth considering being of human beings. Despite the ideology around human potential, realisation, growth, reaching for the stars, unlimited progress, it occurs to me that most human beings are simply not like that in their default way of showing up. Most of us just go along with what is so- the existing way of showing up in the world that was given by the cultural practices that shaped us. Put differently, we are not so much explorers as we are conformists. We stick with the known. We stick with what everyone else around us is being-doing. We stick with what has worked in the past.


  3. Maz, you seem to be saying that a real strategy means change. At Southwest, their business strategy has been unchanged for 4 decades. And yet, they still have one, and they execute it brilliantly.

    Sometimes doing more of the same is the right path. Sometimes not. In both cases, business leaders are making a choice, whether they know it or not.

    That said, when strategy means going a different direction, it is hard work indeed. Both for the “tops” leading the change, and employees who must make it happen.

    So it’s not surprising that minor strategy changes have a better chance of being implemented, and major changes often do not, especially without a gifted leader in charge.

    I think there is a bias towards dramatic changes with “strategists” because it gives the appearance of doing something. However, as I said earlier, I believe a strategy isn’t very good if it can’t be implemented.

  4. Hello Bob,

    I take responsibility for not being clear. So let me be clear and say that I am not saying that real strategy means doing something dramatically different to that which you have been doing.

    What I am saying is that if strategy requires an organisation to do more of the same, or do it a little better or a little different then getting that strategy implemented is not that much of a big deal. This speaks to your case of SouthWest – this organisation hit on the right strategy and have been working on implementing it better and better. Doing the same better.

    If strategy requires the organisation (and thus the people in the organisation) to do something substantially different to then getting that strategy executed is a big issue. Which is arguably why the likes of RIM and Nokia are in the dire straits that they are in – how long ago did Apple launch the iPhone? How many years did these organisations need to catch up? Why is it that Samsung has come from nowhere to compete effectively with Apple, but not Nokia nor RIM?

  5. I think your comment about most companies being “just ok” is spot on. And it may be why simplistic strategies like reducing customer effort make sense.

    I’m not a fan of the Customer Effort Score, nor the notion that you shouldn’t try to delight customers. Mainly because I think more companies should strive to be more than OK.

    But the reality, sadly, is as you suggest. Being OK is about as good as many companies will get, because the fire doesn’t burn within them to be better than that. Change is too hard, leaders are too lazy, content with the bonuses they get for being just OK. The large U.S. banks are a great example — they are barely OK, and yet make plenty of money so why try for more?

    While I recognize that not everyone wants to be a leader, or has the capability to be one, my heart is still with those that try. Like Steve Jobs, who said “I want to put a ding in the universe.”

    I say to you, and to other strategists trying to help companies be more than OK, keep up the good fight! Build great strategies, but also help companies change so they can execute and reap the benefits of the strategy.

    If you do, then we’ll have more companies that leave a “ding” in their industries, and fewer failed business strategies.


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