Three questions to find out if you’re really customer centric?

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“How can I know if we’re really customer centric?”: it’s a question, I’ve been wanting to address for a while now on this blog, because I’ve been asked this so many times. As with many things in life, there are multiple ways to address this inquiry, of course. You can use your customer satisfaction scores as a compass. You could let your net promoter score (NPS) guide you. Or you can even ask yourself if your rewarding system is linked with your customer satisfaction. And indeed, those are all very valid points to look at.

But what I like to do is to ask companies 3 simple questions to help them find out if they’re really as customer centric as they would like to be.

The first question I ask them is “how do you react when your own interest and that of your customer oppose each other”. This type of situation happens more often than you would care to think. Let me illustrate with an example: imagine a bank customer with a sleeping account which hasn’t been used for the last five years. In spite of the lack of activity, they pay an annual fee for the support and maintenance of that sleeping bank account.

How do you deal with that as a bank, if you have a large pool of that type of customers ? Will you keep silent and just cash in that easy and effortless money? Or will you actively contact these clients, telling them “Hey, you have a sleeping account, we need to talk”. And if you do, will you ‘just’ suggest that they shut down the account because they receive absolutely no value for the money they spend? Or will you take a step further and say “Hey, you’ve been paying us for the last five years while we didn’t deliver you any value. We’re going to pay you back for that.“

From the first to the second scenario, you see the level of customer centricity building up. And that’s a mindset which I believe is crucial in order to understand how customer centric you are. So, if you’re not sure about it, just think hard about how you and your company deal with opposing interests. Do you choose the customer’s side? Or your own?

The second question I ask those who want to know how customer centric they are is this: “What’s your mindset when a problem occurs, when something goes wrong in an interaction between you and your client?”

There are basically two types of reactions in case of problems with customers. Do you have a “let’s fix it” mindset? By which I mean: are you set on fixing the problem as soon and as best as you can? Is that your key priority at that moment? Or – reaction number 2 – do you have a “let’s find out who’s fault it is” mindset? These two very different reactions firmly define how customer centric you are.

Now, we all know that the majority of the organizations will try to look for the person who made the mistake. They will want to know if someone inside their own organization messed up or if the customer did something wrong. And based on that information, they will act. But customers don’t really care about that. They just want a solution to their problem, seeing that they (will) pay you good money. And yes, afterwards you can investigate what went wrong, so that you can improve the process  and avoid these types of problems in the future.

So, are you focused on “fixing it” or “finding” it first? This is a great way of finding out how customer centric your attitude is.

My third and last question is this: how empowered are your employees to solve problems? We’ve all been in the situation where you’re discussing a problem with an employee who, instead of actually helping you, tells you they will “ask their manager”. And you know that that’s the sentence that you don’t want to hear. You don’t care about talking to a manager, right? You just want the problem to be solved. And you want the person who is sitting in front of you to (or that is talking to you on the phone) to have the capacity and the empowerment to make that happen.

In some organizations, people are not allowed to do anything. In others, employees are trained and facilitated to solve a problem, whatever it takes. It makes so much more sense: they know the organization through and through and understand what the customer in front of them expects. It’s just a waste of time to draw someone who does not have all the information and background in to the conversation.

So that’s it: three deceivingly simple questions. But they will help you reach a much clearer view on just how customer centric you are. So, next time you want to know how you can become (even) more customer centric, keep this trio as a mantra in your mind:

  1. How do you deal with opposing interests?
  2. What’s your mindset when it comes to mistakes: fix it or find it?
  3. And how empowered are your employees to solve customer problems?

11 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Steven,
    you are absolutely right… again! (Disclosure: I reviewed ‘The Conversation Manager’ for ‘Expert Marketer Magazine’ a few years ago). These are the three core questions a company should be asked (or ask itself!). In my opinion, they are also central to the ‘MVM’ of a customer-centric company – the Minimum Viable Mindset. There will always be tensions between the interests of customers and the interests of companies, and employees are often caught in the middle. It is possible to resolve those tensions in many cases, but not always. What makes a great customer centric company is transparently acknowledging tensions and acting with integrity in dealing with them. In fact, the designer and educator Buckminster Fuller used this as the principle underpinning his design for the geodesic dome. The combination of tension and integrity maintains the strength of the structure. He called it ‘tensegrity’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tensegrity).

  2. These are great questions for company leadership to ask – the answers will drive decisions throughout the customer lifecycle.

    Balancing customer needs with company needs will be very different for a low cost provider looking for operational efficiencies versus a premium priced provider differentiating on how responsive they are to customer needs. In the first case, the greater good is low prices for all which will necessitate less focus on individual customer needs. In the second, the presumption is that customers will pay for higher levels of service.

    In my opinion “fix it” and “find it” should not be mutually exclusive. The “fix it” focuses on immediately resolving a problem and “find it” should be about root cause analysis to prevent the problem from reoccurring rather than finding someone to blame.

    The degree to which employees are empowered to address issues will depend on how problems evolve and the cost of resolution. This also comes back to root cause analysis. How frequent are the problems and how unique are they? If they become predictable then they should be fixed upstream. If they are the nature of a complex product or service then it makes sense to give employees greater autonomy.

    Then the objective becomes operationalizing continuous feedback from voice of the customer and customer service operations to course correct so the organization can raise the customer service bar while controlling and even lowering costs. This is where straight forward text analytics flavors of AI and machine learning can be easily applied and used for continuous improvement.

  3. Great article Steven!

    All three of your questions deal with the organizational culture. As we know, the view from the top is very different from the view at the bottom.

    I have boiled your three questions down to one: Do you have a complaint handling department, or a complaint management department?

    I have found complaint handling to be reactive, and efficiency driven. These are not conducive to customer centricity. Complaint management, in contrast, is pro-active and effectiveness driven to solve the customer problem, even if it is not the organizations fault.

    Complaint management is the customer-centric compass of the organization. It is the core of customer centricity. An organization which does not engage in complaint management cannot be customer-centric. It is not possible for an organization to act like it cares about the customer while ignoring customer complaints or hiding them in the basement.

    Just having a complaint management department means the organizational culture has already answered your three questions. There is only one interest at play. If the customer wins, then the organization wins.
    Fix the problem first (even if the organization is not at fault), then work to prevent it in the future.
    Employees can do anything at all (including breaking policies and procedures) to solve the customer’s problem.
    If you are interested in more information, please see this article https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2394964320925260
    It is all spelled out there. Tell me if you manage complaints or handle them, and I will tell you if you are customer centric. If you look at complaints as a cost center in the organization, then why would you ever think you were customer centric? If you don’t measure the ROI of complaint management, why would you ever think you were customer centric?

    Actions speak louder than words. We need to walk the talk, or accept that we are not customer centric.

  4. Completely agree!! You don´t have to wait things be as in you example (of course an example), for that you have to use the data to know you customers and react when you detect variation of behaviors. Doing that you are taking care of your customers and avoiding them spend money unnecessarily. Regarding the second point, sometimes you don´t have efficiently covered all the issues on your processes and you have an opportunity to fix it. So, say thanks to customer!! The last point, why to have employees if you don´t have empowered employees?
    Also, the three points applies to your team. All the people at your company must breathe those three points. I mean, from top to bottom in your organization, and that should be a corporate culture, if not the chain will broke and the customer will be impacted.

  5. Excellent article, Steven. The questions are spot on! I have found it’s interesting to ask these questions to different areas and levels of the organization and test for consistency. If you ask the same questions of senior leadership and, then, the front lines of customer service, it will be very telling as to whether the customer centric philosophy is actually being implemented.

  6. Really, really, really, really well said Steven. Really.

    The three questions are great. The common element is, are you focused on short-term transactions, or on long-term relationships? Most of us have seen the success that can come from the latter approach, but it’s a tough one to put into a business plan. it relies on the belief that doing what’s right for the customer will ultimately be the right thing for a company’s bottom line. A lot of people profess to believe this, but kind of choke when it comes to actually doing it.

    I put an example of this principle in The Journey to WOW. I then posted an excerpt on LinkedIn for comments. (https://beldinggroup.com/how-to-create-customer-loyalty/ ) I was astounded at how many people referred to it as a recipe for disaster. (It was a small percentage, but still larger than I would have hoped.

    Perhaps the 4th question people should ask themselves is: “What’s the real risk of putting customers first?” The answer may be what motivates a company to action.

  7. Steven, I like your three questions and examples. My experience has been (working with both customer-centric and other-centric organizations, that the first question alone tells the tale. If a leader answered pro-customer to the first question, she or he is highly likely to answer with the same sentiment to the other two questions. Here is my concern.

    My granddaddy used to say, “It is easy to say ‘yes’ when ‘no’ is not an option.” The essence of his line was that the true test of allegiance to a philosophy or practice is not ones answer to a question, it is the answer when the choice requires great courage and major sacrifice. The customer-centric banker who calls customers with sleeping accounts to say, “We’re going to pay you back for that” can do so if the bank has a healthy bottomline. But, what if the bank is operating deep in the red? What if returning the fees risks putting the bank out of business? Am I being customer-centric if my stance eliminates my opportunity to continue to serve my customers?

    Again, we all enjoy simple tests. The broad appeal of a Net Promoter Score, for example, was it used the customer’s answer to “the ultimate question” as the gauge of customer advocacy without considering the context of the customer base or the marketplace in which they operate. If a large percentage of the customer base would never, ever recommend to a family member of friend no matter how great the experience (I had teachers like that!), is it a valid assessment of loyalty? What if the enterprise is the only game in town?

    Your piece is a good discussion starter and well presented. I would caution against broad application. As Mark Twain wisely said, “All generalizations are false, including this one,”

  8. Steve, this was an excellent read. I especially appreciate your third question. How often we walk into an organization in which the employees are not empowered to resolve the customer challenge to solution thinking that they will put the business at risk or that they do not have the where with all to handle that level of challenge. How often have you encountered a senior team when asked, “how customer centric are you and you hear bells and whistles and cheers and bravado along with many raised hands”. Then you ask your three questions and repeat yourself to find the hands folded and a great deal of quiet. Your questions are a good platform for the business to position itself to do the right thing for its customers. Thanks for sharing.

  9. I would say
    Do you build a Customer Strategy to make your business Strategy, that makes all the customer thoughts important
    Do you have a Customer Centric program focused on the front line people and empower them to tellyou what they want to do ofor the customer.
    If not, we can keep asking why isn’t customer centricity taking root!
    Do look at my book, Total Customer Value Management

  10. Steven –

    These are, indeed, critical questions. If culture, strategy, and processes are focused on developing and delivering value, that’s the appropriate enterprise goal. That said, it’s a base point. Your third question – employee commitment, enablement, and empowerment – is where many organizations devote too little time and resources.

    Employees, and employee experience, are an absolutely critical component of value. Value programs and initiatives succeed, or fail, based on employee trust and support. Having long chronicled the superior and long-lasting financial and stability results achieved by organizations practicing what I define as ambassadorship – employees who are committed to the organization, its value proposition, its customers, and to fellow employees (https://www.businessexpertpress.com/books/employee-ambassadorship-optimizing-customer-centric-behavior-from-the-inside-out-and-outside-in/) – I’m a strong believer in having a holistic ‘people-first’ culture, strategy, and set of process.

    I’ll take this a step further. Today, companies that are truly value-focused and people first have evolved beyond customer centricity. Paradigmatic organizations – Southwest Airlines, USAA, Wegmans, Umpqua Bank, etc. – are practicing stakeholder-centricity. There is powerful causation and strong correlation between employee ambassadorship, employee commitment and loyalty, customer experience and value delivery, and downstream customer behavior. For enterprise cultures in 2021 and to paraphrase Robert Frost’s famous poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’, ambassadorship and ‘people first’ may be the road less traveled for many companies, but organizations will find that traveling it makes all the difference.

  11. This is a great article which organizations and executives can use to facilitate corporate and personal introspection. Early on in my work experience I was a phone room customer service representative for a company that was anything but customer centric. Working within a constant state of dissonance wanting to do right by the customer at the same time needing to comply with company policies was challenging.

    The experience taught me the importance of expressing empathy in every interaction. There will be situations, as others have raised, where it is not possible to give the customer exactly what they want to resolve their issue. There needs to be a portion of company self-preservation along with customer centricity which can be appreciated, maybe not loved by the customer, but appreciated. Transparency with empathy is the route I recommend in this situation.

    Communicating with customers from a position of empathy that acknowledges their unique issue and emotional response. Showing them how your organization is able and willing to make a situation right even with corporate constraints is important. Giving your employees the training and empowerment to solve customer problems along this line with an explanation and forum for the customer to ask questions is key to ending an experience on a positive rather than negative.

    Customer centricity is not always just saying yes, it is acting in a responsible and rational manner that supports the business and the customer. Policies and practices that are designed with the customer point of view at the forefront will set your organization up for a more positive overall customer experience. Do this by asking yourself and your employees whether on the frontline or in the C-suite, “how would I feel if someone handled my issue this way,” and “what would I want the rep to say/do in this situation.” Design policies and processes to serve these answers and when they do not, revise. Be transparent and show empathy with customers doing whatever possible within your realistic constraints to address and rectify a situation to create a strong platform upon which to advance CX maturity.

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