The Paradox At The Heart of Customer-Centric Business


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I am no longer a fan of customer-centricity nor customer-centric business. I am not a fan of the way many are going about customer focus, customer-centricity, or customer obsession. It occurs to me that the approach taken by many towards arriving at customer focus, customer-centricity, and customer obsession is not gold, it is fools gold.

Why? Because it occurs to me that an organisation that shows up as customer-centric does not centre itself on its customers. At least not in the simplistic sense that is being written-talked about, promoted and acted upon by many.

I get that I make a bold, even controversial statement, and it highly unlikely to win me applause. That is OK, given that my commitment is to write my truth and take a skeptical stance towards the dominant ideologies and practices.

I get that you might want to better understand why it is that I assert that which I assert here. Allow me to point at, illustrate, and unconceal that which I am getting at here by sharing with you some quotes. Let’s start with Emmy Van Deurzen, chartered counselling psychologist and registered existential psychotherapist:

…. one can never ignore the needs of others when making personal decisions but neither can one allow others to entirely determine oneself even when alone. This is a paradox.

Yes, you do need to consider customers – their needs, their desired outcomes, their ‘jobs-to-be-done’, their preferences etc. And you cannot run a successful business just by focussing on your customers. The game of business involves other players whose needs have to be considered. For example, a facet of business life caught my attention whilst working with smaller businesses, which had not so gripped me for most of my life working in big businesses. What facet? The critical importance of finding, hiring, organising, enabling, inspiring, channeling, and retaining the people who actually work inside the business to do that which is necessary to create value for customers. It occurs to me that this is just as important for big businesses, it is not so evident because the dysfunctions of a demotivated workforce don’t show up as vividly in a huge organisation. Or take a look at Zappos, its success is partly built on the way the founders and management team treated suppliers (as a valuable part of Zappos) and thus called forth co-operation from them.

Furthermore, if you simply follow what customers are telling you then you leave yourself open to the disruption caused by those who can see beyond what customers are saying in market research and customer surveys. Here, I share a passage from Matt Watkinson, the author of The Ten Principles Behind Great Customer Experiences:

It is not only consumers who have shifted towards other-directedness and ended up struggling: businesses have too. The dominant obsession with market intelligence, competitor analysis, and customer research is all about developing a more powerful radar, and the endless hand-wringing and strategising over social media betrays the kind of anxieties that are most often found in those eager for the approval of others.

In contrast, we most admire those businesses with a strong inner direction – a clear set of values, integrity and sense of purpose – and tend to lionise celebrity CEOs who bring that ethos to life…….. Customers churn between suppliers to find the best deal, not because we are all extremely price sensitive, but because there is nothing to be loyal to.

What Matt is pointing at here is that we are not simply the kind of beings that economics says we are. Nor are we the kind of beings that rationalist philosophy, behavioural psychology, and scientific management assumes that we are. The human being is a richer human being. A human being that strives for meaning and connection, open to being loyal to ideals, values, missions that elevate human life.

Finally, I want to leave you with wisdom from John Kay, an British economist:

If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in another. This is the concept of ‘obliquity’: paradoxical as it sounds, many goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. Whether overcoming geographical obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting sales targets, history shows that oblique approaches are the most successful, especially in difficult terrain.

Obliquity is necessary because we live in an world of uncertainty and complexity; the problems we encounter aren’t always clear – and we often can’t pinpoint what our goals are anyway; circumstances change; people change – and are infuriatingly hard to predict; and direct approaches are often arrogant and unimaginative.

So let me remind you of my central assertion:

A customer-centric organisation does not centre itself on its customers. It is a paradox. And I say that it occurs to me that the way that many organisations are going about customer focus and customer-centricity, will not get them there. The path heavily promoted, and commonly taken, is fools gold.

Whilst I abhor combat, I do welcome conflict: conflict is simply the showing up of difference. And if difference is approached through the spirit of dialogue then it unconceals aspects of the world that are hidden from each of us. So if you disagree with that which I have written then please speak your mind, educate me, share that which you see and which I do not see. I wish you a great day and thank you for making the time to listen to my speaking.

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, I’m struggling to understand your points. Perhaps the problem is that you are defining customer-centricity too literally and simplistically, as “customers running the business” or “doing whatever customers want.” I certainly agree this doesn’t work in the real world of business.

    I recommend studying and how Jeff Bezos has defined and implemented customer-centricity. Recall that he set out to make “the most customer-centric company in the world.” He has a vision for the company and clear strategy for what it does/doesn’t provide. And yet, customers always have a “seat at the table” and he leads the company to build loyal and profitable relationships. Seems to be working, don’t you agree?

    For a long time, Bezos resisted explicitly defining customer-centricity, an odd thing to do considering it was his founding vision. Bill Price, former Amazon VP of Global Customer Service and founder of “best service is no service,” told me Bezos finally said customer-centricity meant “listen to customers and invent for customers.”

    In his recent letter to shareholders, Bezos said: “Proactively delighting customers earns trust, which earns more business from those customers, even in new business arenas. Take a long-term view, and the interests of customers and shareholders align.”

  2. Hello Bob,

    The intention behind my post was not to provide clear cut answers. Here is the problem and here is the definitive answer or ten steps that lead to the answer. I live that to others who excel in this domain.

    The intention of my post was to provoke thinking; thinking starts with puzzlement, bewilderment. It includes asking oneself questions such as “What is getting at?”, “Is there something that he sees that I do not yet see?” etc.

    Why do I want people to think? It occurs to me that almost everyone has a simplistic view on what customer-centricity is. Too often it is a view bought of the shelf like we buy groceries at the supermarket – with pretty much no though.

    You refer to Bezos and you say that Bezos resisted explicitly defining customer-centricity for a long time. I say, I get it. It occurs to me that Bezos is a wise man. Why? Because he is living the question “what constitutes customer-centricity?” and I suspect he wanted people in his organisation to live the question too. I say one starts being customer-centric when one grapples-lives the question “what is it for us to be customer-centric?”. And when enough people live this question and talk-discuss with a commitment to make the organisation customer-centric then you have an organisation walking the customer-centric path.

    Furthermore, and this is really important, the answers to the question “what constitutes customer-centricity” will change as time moves forward. Markets change, competitors change, customers change, customer behaviour changes, technology changes….

    I guarantee that most of the organisations that are pursuing customer-centricty will fail. Why? Because you do not create a customer-centric organisation through the simplistic head on approach that these many are using. For example, many are trampling on the needs-dignity of their employees to arrive at customer-centricty. So you have employees who are penalised unless customers give a 9-10 on the NPS score. You have employees who are penalised if they deviate from company policy. And they are penalised if they do not please the customer. The problem is that this too often a double bind: the company has to deviate from company policy to please the customer!

    Lastly, an organisation is an ecosystem not a missile. A healthy ecosystem requires that the needs of all the subsystems are met. And that the relationships between these systems are functioning well. This means that the needs of all the players have to be met and synchronised.

    I wish you the very best Bob


  3. I hope that your post does provoke deeper thinking about customer-centricity.

    Perhaps it would help if you could
    1. Define the “simplistic view on what customer-centricity is,” which you say everyone has.
    2. Define what you think customer-centricity should be, to avoid the pitfalls that lead to failure.

    Thank you, Maz.


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