Time to Retire Customer Obsession

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The Great Resignation reminded us that there are huddled masses of workers yearning to breathe free. Was customer obsession a catalyst? After all, insisting that everyone from front-line employees to C-Suite executives be customer obsessed is no trivial matter. By definition, obsession is a “persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling” (Merriam Webster). Customer obsession isn’t easily purged from your mind when you close your laptop or step away from your computer. When Jeff Bezos flamboyantly coined the expression in 1997, I suspect burnout was not among his concerns.

Customer obsession proponents argue that it fosters “hyper focus” on positive customer outcomes. They rationalize that obsession is beneficial because it improves customer experiences, and has created substantial revenue growth not just for Amazon, but for many companies that have emulated Amazon’s obsession strategy. With a long list of article titles like 7 Steps to Building a Customer-Obsessed Culture in Your Sales Organization, and Customer Obsession: a Concept That Drives Business, it’s understandable that people get caught up in the stampede.

Missing from the hype is that by injecting customer obsession into corporate strategy, stakeholders – including customers – can be harmed. Since it began its customer obsession pursuits, Amazon has ruthlessly exploited its warehouse workers, used its transaction data to undermine small businesses, and allowed use of its website to fence stolen goods.

Oddly, despite its obsession hype, Amazon has engaged in practices that compromise the interests of its customers. An article titled Who’s Responsible for Defective Products Sold on Amazon? (PBS, March 11, 2020) asks “who is responsible when something goes wrong with an item purchased on Amazon?” Answer: “For consumers, [it’s not] always clear.”

In 2015, a woman named Heather Oberdorf suffered a mishap with a dog collar she purchased on Amazon’s website. During a walk with her dog, the collar broke when the dog lunged, causing the retractable leash she was using to snap back and hit her in the face, leaving her permanently blinded in the left eye. Although Amazon sold the defective collar, the company was unable to locate the manufacturer. Oberdorf sued Amazon, but Amazon denied liability, arguing “Amazon makes clear in the conditions of use that third-party sellers sell products on the marketplace, and that those sellers, not Amazon, are responsible for the products,” according to a statement Amazon filed with the U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Pennsylvania in 2017. Oberdorf’s case against Amazon is far from unique.

It’s ironic that Amazon, the company that invented customer obsession, constructed boundaries around it in the form of fine print, loopholes, limitations, restrictions, disclaimers, and legal dodges. “The average consumer has no idea that buying a product from an online marketplace might open them or their families up to risks,” said Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and general counsel for the Consumer Federation of America. “If these companies are successful in arguing that, because of innovation, they fall outside of traditional legal terms, it leaves consumers without a tool that the law traditionally provides them.”

A truthful public relations statement for Amazon and other customer-obsessed companies would be “We’re customer obsessed . . . until it’s in our best interest not to be.” My purpose is not to bash Amazon. It’s to argue that customer obsession is more marketing hype than operational substance.

Search online for “customer obsession” and you’ll get about 2.3 million results – roughly 45 times more than for Nettie Stevens (48,000 results), the American geneticist who in 1905 discovered that X and Y chromosomes, and not environmental factors, determine gender. That disparity seems wrong, but it’s emblematic of how quickly an idea can proliferate in the digital age.

To understand customer obsession’s rapid rise as a business ideal, it helps to consider its evolution from a rhetorical perspective. Amazon’s 1997 shareholder letter is the first documented use of the term – “Obsess over customers.” Between 1996 and 1997, Amazon’s revenue achieved an 838% increase in revenue – from $15.7 million to $147.8 million. Marketing pundits and industry analysts credited customer obsession as the cause, thereby vaulting the expression to the pinnacle of marketing lexicon.

The potential bonanza was too big for marketing professionals to ignore. With obsession, they had a power-packed expression to upend staid marketing parlance. Senior executives needed to be prodded from their torpor, which required replacing dowdy terms like customer commitment, customer-centricity, customer-focus, and service-orientation. Like a gift from the gods, customer obsession amplified the marketing conversation to the highest decibels, propelling the belief that no matter how well companies satisfied customer needs, no matter how ethical or committed to customer success they were, it wasn’t enough. Customer obsession created yet another rung to climb. And consultants eagerly rushed in to help.

Shortly after Bezos launched customer obsession as a business mantra, he cemented its power with a persuasive message. Rather than defending his use of the word obsession, which at the time was more known for its psychiatric meaning, Bezos simply compared customer obsession to other business “obsessions” like competitive, technological, and product – which he framed as flawed ideals. For executives who had already imbibed customer-centric Kool-Aid, it was hard to disagree. Few questioned whether customer obsession – or obsession of any kind, for that matter – was harmful as a business strategy, or deleterious in corporate culture. Like many “shiny business objects,” practitioners saw the huge opportunities in customer obsession, and none of the risks.

Unfortunately, customer obsession is not riskless.

1. It creates narrow thinking in decision processes. In the digital era, business decisions are increasingly complex. While meeting customer needs is vital for any business strategy, other interests, such as those of investors, suppliers, employees, communities, regulators, and the environment should not necessarily be subordinate to customers, and cannot be ignored. And those interests are not always congruent with customer need. Executives are entrusted to optimize finite resources such as time, money, and product capabilities. They must make tradeoffs, some of which are difficult. The absolutism and comparative simplicity of customer obsession, while often a handy decision catalyst, is incompatible with reality.

2. It’s overly simplistic. It’s easy to grasp customer obsession when customers are homogenous. For example, a dry cleaning company that provides services only to one type of customer. But how do companies manage “customer obsession” when customer needs are incongruent or incompatible? As Mark Hurst wrote in a 2021 blog, When Customer Obsession Goes Wrong, “For example, the ‘customer’ used to be the buyer on Amazon.com. Now, Amazon has entered the ads business, and the original ‘customer’ is in another context the ‘user,’ and ad tech has a long history of seeing users as things to be manipulated.”

3. It can be perceived as fake. With Customer Obsession, it’s important to differentiate Hype from Practice. Applying the literal meaning of obsession in operations would assuredly bleed profitability. To create and maintain profits, companies enact restrictions regarding the products and services they provide. Inevitably, product decisions favor some customers, and disadvantage others. And companies would suffer financially if customer policies and terms for product use didn’t mitigate their legal risks. Those risks don’t just vanish. Instead, other stakeholders absorb them – especially unwitting customers, as in the Amazon example. Further, it’s hard to imagine a CFO endorsing discretionary free technical support for customers when the company’s revenue model depends on billable services. Employees are not naive. They clearly see the disparities between a company’s customer obsession messages and its actions.

4. It risks reduced morale and employee burnout. Obsession – whether it’s around customers, revenue, profits, productivity, or process conformity – fosters mistrust between employees and supervisors. A study published on Salon.com regarding profit-obsession found that “supervisors who have a high bottom-line mentality have low-quality relationships with their employees.” According to lead researcher Matthew Quade, Ph.D., assistant professor of management in Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business, “supervisors who focus only on profits to the exclusion of caring about other important outcomes, such as employee well-being or environmental or ethical concerns, turn out to be detrimental to employees . . . This results in relationships that are marked by distrust, dissatisfaction and lack of affection for the supervisor. And ultimately, that leads to employees who are less likely to complete tasks at a high level and less likely to go above and beyond the call of duty.”

5. It’s harmful to stakeholders. As Amazon and Wells Fargo have demonstrated, prioritizing beneficence for a single stakeholder group compromises the interests of other groups. In Amazon’s case, customer obsession undermined the livelihood of its suppliers when the company decided to use its information advantage to produce its own branded products. Wells Fargo’s obsession with elevating their stock price led them to sacrifice the safety of its employees and customers.

6. It creates dissonance in IT projects. In most organizations, enterprise strategy drives IT strategy. Business strategies dictate which projects get funded, initiated, and developed. Ultimately, the who, what, when, where, why, and how for every IT project must get converted into connected sets of business rules, process details, job function details, and data architectures. In the context of customer obsession, project scopes are still subject to constraints, which means supporting some customer needs, and sidelining others. “Decision boxes” with binary outcomes must be configured in flowcharts, then embedded into lines of code.

How can a strategy involving customer obsession, which lacks boundaries and eschews rules, co-exist with IT project development? How do organizations implement effective governance in a culture of obsession? How does a C-Level executive explain to a developer the rationale for obfuscating the pathway that a customer must take to unsubscribe a fee-based service? It seems disingenuous to tell her “we’re so obsessed with customer loyalty that we’ll use software trickery to maintain it!” These are not easy questions to answer. Absent an effective way for organizations to reconcile these problems, project managers are left to apply their own values and interpretations.

7. It screens the wrong attributes in hiring. Predictably, customer obsession has spawned a copious offering of YouTube videos designed to coach job candidates about the “right” way to appear customer obsessed. Unfortunately, many of the training videos ignore the service dilemmas employees face, and they fail to provide candidates insight into real-world problem solving in the context of customer service. For example, instances where an employee had to weigh whether to satisfy a manager’s requirement to reduce support costs, or whether to go “above and beyond” to service a customer need. Or, deciding whether delivering “customer delight” is financially sensible. Obsession squashes those choices. Other dilemmas are more visceral: whether the employee should protect their own safety, or simply acquiesce to customer demands, or tolerate dangerous behaviors – a choice that many airline employees regularly face. Given the realities they face, how many flight attendants could pass muster as sufficiently “customer obsessed”?

For many people, customer obsession carries the connotation of benign intent toward customers. But that is not a reliable assumption. Customer obsession does not mean customer interests are protected. It does not mean that customers are “safe” when engaging with customer-obsessed companies. It does not mean that organizations subvert their own interests to favor customer outcomes. As Mark Hurst wrote, “How did Amazon’s ‘customer obsession’ go wrong? It seems like an important question, since so many teams today claim to be focused on their customer. That claim often rings hollow, as many teams ship digital products littered with dishonest tricks: dark patterns for addicting users, surveillance and tracking for resale to shady third parties, and opaque algorithms for subtle manipulation. Looking at the digital landscape today can be depressing. If Amazon couldn’t stop its own descent into unethical practices, it seems unlikely that other teams could manage to act better. Is there, in the end, any way for a company to continue to treat people well?” His question deserves thoughtful answers, although I feel certain that customer obsession isn’t among them.

Our current lexicon does not provide a more extreme word than than obsession. Until someone coins an expression that eclipses it, I’m not sanguine that customer obsession – or the illusion of it – will go away anytime soon. But I’m confident that when customer obsession loses its hyperbolic energy – as it surely will – a hot new idea will replace it. Hopefully, one that doesn’t burden companies with decision blinders and doesn’t undermine the interests of non-customer stakeholders. Maybe the Next Great Thing will be balance. In the meantime, we’re better off applauding customer obsession for its marketing impact, acknowledging that operationally, we’re probably not as obsessed as we think we are, and that in a customer-obsessed world, customers aren’t always the beneficiaries.

16 COMMENTS

  1. A great discussion of customer obsession as the off-kilter enterprise mantra and set of strategies it has proven so often to be. I agree with virtually all of your points, especially those involving employees.

    Progressive, more stakeholder-centric companies focus on optimized customer value creation and delivery, of course; however, they also recognize the central, critical role of employee experience and of committed employees as actively contributing assets, rather than treating them as fuel costs and pawns in the customer hyper-drive rocket ship.. And importantly, commitment-based companies have more productive employees and significantly lower employee burnout and churn, which is important to customer trust and experience..

  2. Interesting post Andy, and a well-reasoned argument. But I think you may be going a bit overboard to imply that customer obsession is tied to so many negative processes and outcomes. For example, “Since it began its customer obsession pursuits, Amazon has ruthlessly exploited its warehouse workers, used its transaction data to undermine small businesses, and allowed use of its website to fence stolen goods.” You are implying a causality that may or may not exist. Companies that practice customer obsession can have faulty practices that are not benign, but I assure you that companies that are not focused on customers are also not benign. And as for Amazon itself, when you are the largest online retailer in the world, you will have product quality and support issues – but as a consumer, I like the fact that Amazon is extremely responsive and seems to have my best interests at heart. I am no particular fan of Amazon or any other monopolistic enterprise, but there is no doubt its focus on customer obsession has been a huge benefit to the company and consumer alike.

  3. Customer obsession is very relevant to business and brands the require repeat customers to flourish. The benefit businesses can receive depends on how the same is implemented. Most people and businesses only talk about customer obsession without providing goods or service that are good for the customers. The Key word in customer obsession for is ensuring customer success.
    Let me end this comment by quoting Admis Smith: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages”.
    Who’s interests are we focused on in our businesses; the customers needs or our company’s gains?

  4. Great points Andrew. I see this in my professional services firm when delivery team members out in more hours than are allocated for a project and therefore don’t get billed to the client. It does a disservice to our company but also can perpetuate unrealistic expectations on the part of the customer. That can lead to chronic under funding for projects and is not sustainable long term.

    As you point out there are inherent conflicts in customer needs and those of the organization trying to meet those needs. It’s fine to be obsessed when it makes economic sense but when it doesn’t then it’s not sustainable unless there is a path to profitable customer obsession.

    It’s almost like saying the company is revenue obsessed or profit obsessed. There may be short term losses but there has to be long term payback. The bigger issue is when those short term losses are at the expense of safety, unnecessary risk, employee burnout, or delayed maintenance – all due to an obsession with serving a customer and setting unrealistic and unsustainable expectations.

    There has to be some level of fairness and equity in a customer/provider relationship. Policies can be abused by some that will have an impact on all stakeholders. I agree with you that unchecked customer obsession, as ins true with any obsession, is not healthy for the customer or the organization.

  5. Hi Michael: thank you for your comment. Whether embedded in corporate culture or person-to-person, a significant problem with obsession is that the object of the obsession – in this case, customers – is in a precarious position. That not only makes them vulnerable, but as you’ve pointed out, when intentions get significantly skewed, others are vulnerable, as well. While it’s sad that employee interests are easier to ignore in ‘customer-obsessed’ cultures, it should not surprise anyone. An artifact of all obsessions is a deliberate absence of procedural and ethical guardrails. One reason is that any strategy, tactic or action that actualizes the obsession is acceptable. Accordingly, in a culture of obsession, governance is scorned anytime it undermines the obsession.

  6. Andy, I’m a big fan of yours but feel you’ve “obsessed” over “customer obsession.” Yes, anything can be taken to an extreme including, as you suggest, focusing on customers to the exclusion of all other considerations. However, I feel there are at least a few points in your lengthy argument that require a counterpoint.

    Taken in reverse order, and really the basis of all my comments to follow, is your somewhat pejorative suggestion about the next big/hyped term being “balance.” Indeed, this isn’t the next hot term but, in my view, the enduring and guiding term. Balance in all things.

    This is the overriding leadership challenge, and one that telegraphs–or doesn’t–all way down through an organization. Balancing near-term tactics with longer term strategic moves. Balancing profitability against reinvestment (R&D, HR, bonuses, etc), and, as you suggest, customer care versus other stakeholders.

    However, your examples of Customer Obsession seem to border on reductio ad absurdum. For example, in creating IT dissonance: How does a C-Level executive explain to a developer the rationale for obfuscating the pathway that a customer must take to unsubscribe a fee-based service?

    Another popular term for those obsessed with customers is reducing “friction” Your example doesn’t reduce friction but suggests a conscious intent to increase it.

    Many of your other examples about exploiting employees, abusing vendors, jeopardizing stakeholders, seem more the result of companies (including Amazon) overzealously leveraging their market dominating (dare we say, monopolistic?) position. This may be a more reasonable target for your scrutiny and criticism than being customer obsessed.

    Similarly, avoiding legal responsibility is hardly unique to customer obsessed firms, or those claiming to be. Gun manufacturers, Internet providers and drug companies are just a few examples of industries that have gone to extreme lengths to limit their responsibility; yet, few of these spring to mind as being customer obsessed.

    Finally, if we have to have an obsession, I’m happy to trade customer obsession for “share value/executive pay obsession.” In counterpoint to a couple of your references, I suggest, “The Man Who Broke Capitalism: How Jack Welch Gutted the Heartland and Crushed the Soul of Corporate America–and How to Undo His Legacy.” Your Wells Fargo example is a better example of this, than customer obsession.

    Nordstrom has long been held up as a retailer that was customer intimate, a term pre-dating customer obsession. Empowering employees to do whatever was needed to please customers, which also pre-dated employee empowerment discussions, a sales clerk agreed to refunding a customer’s tire purchase, even though Nordy’s doesn’t sell tires! (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/return-to-spender/)

    Clearly, this isn’t something you want everyone doing, in every instance, with every customer demand. Ages ago, Regis McKenna coined the term of the “never satisfied customer.” Still, the customer is always right, is an old business maxim. It has been updated to being Customer-centric and the other terms you quote early in your post. This may not be a gift of the gods, but it’s not a bad place to start.

  7. Andy, it’s always great to challenge the status quo and create debate, so well done for posting this! To me, many things in life are on a pendulum. They swing from one extreme to another and end up in the middle, where they should be and is most effective after a period of time. I think ‘Customer obsession’ is a case in point. As you outline, ‘obsession’ has negatives as well as positives. I would argue I would rather have an organization that is Customer obsessed than product-obsessed. The reality is what you want is Customer focused, which is in the middle of the pendulum.

  8. All: thank you for taking the time to read my article, and for your insightful comments.

    @ Colin: No doubt that societal and economic vicissitudes spawn new business strategies and opportunities. The pendulum analogy is apt. But in my experience, business strategies are more sustainable when they don’t mirror the extremities of the range. Rather, volatility is something to be avoided in business operations, rather than sought. Hence, my objection to obsession in any form since it connotes a lack of boundaries or constraints. The issue I raised in the article – whether obsession is beneficial in organizational culture – applies to any obsession. So to me, the matter of whether customer obsession is more beneficial (or less problematic) than product obsession is a false choice when my question is why inject obsession at all?

    @barry: fair point about my being obsessed over obsession! Whenever I prepare an article, I can be described as ‘obsessed,’ since my writing process demands that I think continually about my subject – at least, until my article is done. But that somewhat corroborates my point about the negative culture in ‘obsessed’ organizations. Once my writing is complete, I typically move on to other stuff, obsession-free! I’ve worked in organizations that are pridefully self-described as ‘obsessed’ over [fill in cause du jour]. Here, my observation is anecdotal: I can attest to what it’s like to have obsession surround your work experience: it’s not fun, and it doesn’t go away until you go on to your next gig. Others might crave the energy that accompanies obsession, which is OK. But I question how sustainable obsession is. That is why I included the findings from one study about employee responses to obsessed managers. Lest we get too excited about the purportedly positive results of obsession, it’s important to understand that not all obsession outcomes are beneficial. Regarding Amazon’s customer litigation, supplier abuses, and employee exploitation: it’s disingenuous for Amazon to frame their ‘customer obsession’ as benevolent, while deliberately doing things that are inarguably harmful to customers and other stakeholders. Citing Amazon’s obsession hype, many people have called ‘BS’ on the company. I find other companies on the customer obsession bandwagon are similarly hypocritical.

    @Chris – thanks for pointing out the confusion between correlation and causation. Obsession might not directly cause the outcomes I cited, but if nothing else, it should give people pause about an ‘obsessed’ company’s sincerity. How does a company that describes itself as ‘customer obsessed’ knowingly commit actions that harm customers? I had the same reaction when Boeing professed its unbending commitment to product safety even while contradictory evidence was being revealed. And some people wonder why public trust in corporations has suffered!

    @seth – thank you for your point about how providing some services create unrealistic expectations from customers. That sets them up for disappointment later on when those services are denied or withheld. I understand how it happens: in a ‘customer-obsessed’ culture, employees strive to make customers happy, and keep them that way. Support efforts become dysfunctional when decisions lack boundaries. Obsessions lack boundaries, and my argument is that an ‘obsessed culture’ that has boundaries is just marketing fakery.

    @dr. smith: Thank you for your comment. With apologies to Adam Smith, in today’s business environment, I think it’s incumbent on any executive to be mindful of all stakeholder interests, not just their own. That doesn’t mean everyone’s interests has parity, but in a world where our health and and well-being are so interdependent, it would be quite sad if we accepted the idea that every decision maker considered his or her interests alone.

  9. Andy, thanks for your post which stimulated a useful discussion.

    My take: “Obsession” is an extreme term, and not my personal favorite. I think it’s fair to point out that obsessing about any one thing could lead to unfortunate consequences — for the other things ignored.

    But your arguments seem mostly hypothetical — illustrating what *might* happen if executives went overboard on customer obsession. These examples could just as easily be used to support a point that obsessing over other stakeholders (employees, suppliers, partners, investors) is a recipe for failure.

    I’m not worried about a rush to customer obsession, despite the success of Amazon, Apple, and other customer-centric firms that advocate “working backward from the customer experience” or similar. Google trends shows a minor uptick in mentions over the past few years, dwarfed by “shareholder value” and “employee experience.”
    https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&geo=US&q=%22customer%20obsession%22,shareholder%20value,employee%20experience

    As for Amazon, customer obsession helped it grow and become dominant. Great for consumers but not so much for employees due to intense work environment, or for suppliers who got squeezed. But is the un-obsessed Walmart any better? How about GE, where “Neutron Jack” Welch was obsessed with short-term profits and shareholder value, which ironically hurt the company in the long term?

    Amazon is far from perfect, but recently was found in LinkedIn research as the “No. 1 company to work for in 2022.” According to this article, the company addressed issues that came to the fore during the pandemic.
    “In the last 12 months the e-commerce company has more than doubled the maximum base salary for corporate employees, introduced new mental health benefits and announced that they would cover 100% of tuition costs for hourly employees, to name a few examples. ”
    https://www.cnbc.com/2022/04/06/amazon-is-the-no-1-company-to-work-for-in-2022-according-to-linkedin.html

    So it seems a company can be obsessed over customers, reap the benefits, and then make adjustments. Being obsessed with customers doesn’t necessarily mean turning a blind eye to other parties.

    Over time, yes all stakeholders do need to get value. Amazon investors had to wait a very long time to get a return on their investment, while Bezos basically said “trust me.”

    However, I don’t think “balance” is an effective strategy, because “strategy” means making choices. Business leaders need to pick something as an area of focus, and since customers are the ultimate source of value it still makes sense to me when they are the centerpiece of corporate strategy.

  10. Appreciate these lines from your post : ” For many people, customer obsession carries the connotation of benign intent toward customers. But that is not a reliable assumption. Customer obsession does not mean customer interests are protected. It does not mean that customers are “safe” when engaging with customer-obsessed companies. Maybe the Next Great Thing will be balance. ” To share with you one of my experiences, an air-conditioning customer came all the way from Mumbai to Ahmedabad (both in India), way back in 1998 when I was with the customer care in head office of this a.c. company. He wanted a split a.c. unit specifically tested on assembly line for its noise levels and given to him against a noisy split that he had bought from us. We had demonstrated already at site ( his bedroom) that the decibel level was 48, which was below 55 decibel (our commitment). Still he was fussy. He wanted to meet our CEO. I had categorically said that we cannot replace the unit. We will repair it , at the most if he permits (despite the fact that it needed no repair). My CEO backed me and said ” We will take back the deal and offer a 100% refund, if we cannot keep the deal”. He walked back silently and was okay with the so called noisy unit. It takes guts to admit our limitations and be transparent and straight forward in our dealings, the way we functioned in this company.

  11. Andrew: I love challenging conventional wisdom. We can, however, overanalyze obsession and provide unfair commentary on Amazon because we’re not fully aware of the case facts.

    My approach to an intelligent obsession would be one that finds in the customer’s favor in every case, even when the customer is out of bounds, but you also take into account others such as employees and even the stockholder. You have an intentionality toward delight (see my recent article on Customer Think https://bit.ly/3GJ1C9J ) but not give away the store. Obsession would even include saying no to the customer in certain situations because it would disrupt the delivery of product (think paper or steel mills) to other customers who were also depending on delivery. Obsession is supported by an underlying foundation of flexible solution spaces which address the reasonable range of actions you or any other employee could take.
    Is Amazon’s definition of obsession hypocritical? – maybe – but from the outside, it is hard to understand the logic being applied to specific business decisions. Placing the commentary within the Amazon context is also too simplistic without further information.

  12. All: I appreciate your perspectives on this topic. As business practitioners and communicators, I think it’s important to recognize that our words have a direct impact on an organization’s actions, as well as its culture. Maya Angelou shared a related understanding: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” Since first reading that statement, I think of this aphorism almost daily. So, when I read or hear a mutation of a word or idea – as with ‘obsession’ – it rankles me when others dismiss the corrupted interpretations, and conveniently try to spin a self-serving “new” meaning: “Well, we all know, he doesn’t really mean obsession as we understand it . . . what he really means is . . . .” or, as John mentioned, underpinning obsession with a “reasonable range of actions.” When I read or hear ‘obsession,’ I think of the dictionary meaning. Not the hyperbolic marketing meaning. Maybe I’m stuck in my ways.

    What concerns me is how a ‘reasonable range of actions’ can be applied to ‘obsession’, which, by definition, is not reasonable. The dissonance not only corrodes an organization’s mission and its culture, but endangers its stakeholders. A word, thought, or idea becomes risky when it is continually necessary to qualify, modify, backpedal, or subdue its intended meaning. I used Amazon as an example of the hypocrisy because of the company’s prominence and because Bezos initially coined customer obsession. It’s deceptive anytime when a company exploits the positive connotations of customer obsession for marketing purposes when their business intentions and actions are clearly not in concord. Want to become truly ‘customer obsessed’ in the positive sense for customers? Then throw out your ‘terms of use’ and return policies. Do whatever your customers want you to do, and impose no restrictions on your employees in fulfilling their needs. That to me is customer obsession – without the bad part, of course. The problem is, no profitable enterprise can operate that way.

    While I agree that some business topics can be ‘over-analyzed’, I believe this one merits a much-needed debate. Customer obsession has been around since 1997. Are customers truly better off?

    There is a unifying thread between this conversation, and a developing controversy with the Washington Commanders football team. Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio was roundly criticized for his Twitter comments comparing the January 6 insurrection with the protests about the murder of George Floyd. (Del Rio was fined $100,000 for his comment and has since deleted his Twitter account). The team’s head coach, Ron Rivera synthesized his feelings well in a statement he made on June 10th: “I feel strongly that after our conversation this morning, [Del Rio] will have a greater understanding for the impact of his language and the values that our team stands for.”

    It’s past time that business practitioners adopt the same point of view: the language we use has potentially far-reaching impact, and it’s important that we not only understand what it is, but be accountable for the language we use, as Jack Del Rio can now attest.

    A related article I wrote in 2016, The Conflicted Rhetoric of Marketing and Sales also generated a valuable discussion. Please see
    https://customerthink.com/the-conflicted-rhetoric-of-marketing-and-sales/

  13. Andrew: I think we are on the same side of this discussion if we can build a bridge between “reasonable range of actions” and “obsession.” A company can define obsession to the employees with a series of examples, what I call flexible solution spaces. In situation A, here is a range of things and in situation B, here is another set of options. While Ritz-Carlton famously empowers the front line to $2,000, I’ve had 90 minute check-in waits and never been offered $2,000 off my bill. Ron Zemke and I both found that if you provide employees with a limited set of benchmark examples of what you mean by obsession (or any other construct of a Customer First policy – at Toyota, it was once “The Toyota Touch”), they will generally make intelligent decisions that fulfill your objectives. The problem occurs, as you point out, when the phrase is lifted out of its context (usually by marketing) and is used as a differentiator with customers and employees with no limitation. Obsession, on its face, implies no limitation. From that perspective, I agree with you.

    If you read the Amazon Way by Rossman, it describes the instrumentation of each step of all customer facing processes to identify defects which lead to the need for service. Such measurement dramatically reduced the number of errors and unpleasant surprises customer encountered with basic transactions – a sort of detailed obsession for adherence to process. As Amazon expanded, I cannot speak to whether such metrics are applied to third parties and other areas. Also, Bezos in his 2018 letter to shareholders highlights “scaling failure”, meaning trying many big experiments, knowing some will fail. His stated intention was improving Amazon’s offerings and empowering his team to take “intelligent risks”. A major blind spot could be focusing on revenue producing “customers” while ignoring employees who should be equal stakeholders. This lack of balance probably argues that you are correct obsession as defined by Webster and used by many marketers is probably counter productive. What we need is an index of marketing quality – I half-joking suggested it five years ago in a Quality Progress article. Maybe a new areas for discussion. All we need is for marketing to be transparent. Should be easy. 🙂

  14. Your thoughts, as always Andrew, forced me to think. I like it. 🙂

    I’m not entirely sure that your argument supports the mantra of “Customer Obsession” as being harmful, as much as it supports the potential harm caused by certain narrow definitions of customer obsession. If Customer Obsession is defined, for example, as the needs of customers being an integral component of all business decisions, then it is still quite sound. In the long term, strategic decisions made that run contrary to the best interests of customers ultimately lead to Bad Things.

    If, on the other hand, Customer Obsession is defined as cow-towing to every customer whim, an unarguable recipe for disaster is created. But in that case, I would argue that the culprit would entirely be the definition.

    In 2008, one of our clients was a mid-sized trust company which had hung its hat on customer obsession. The financial crisis hit and they were one of the few North American institutions that actually grew. The CEO explained to me that a large part of their success was because they had always been so exacting in their lending policies. Unlike other banks, they chose not to profit by encouraging customers to overextend themselves, and often denied medium-risk loans.

    Prior to the recession, he had faced many loan-denied customers angrily questioning their ‘customer obsessed’ claim. When the recession hit, however, the bank’s customers were significantly more financially stable than most, and when the recession was over, many of his loudest detractors made a point to thank him.

    This CEO defined Customer Obsession as “Acting in the best interests of the customer.” I like that. When you define customers as ‘people whom we serve,’ It works. It includes consumers and all stakeholders – and effectively encompasses the balancing act that every organization needs to manage.

  15. @shaun @john: thank you for your insights on this discussion. I think an IMQ (Index of Marketing Quality) would be an interesting and useful metric to develop. Possibly a way to compare a company’s marketing messages to customer experiences in those message categories. Expectedly, companies that hawk their customer obsessiveness with correspondingly low customer satisfaction would have a low IMQ, while self-professed “customer-obsessive” organizations that have high customer satisfaction would have a high IMQ. Too often, people use reported revenue as a proxy for customer satisfaction.

    Still, I’m not sold that ‘customer obsession’ is positive within a company, and I continue to be troubled its durable influence. Whether an obsession over profit, cost reduction, products, or customers, in an organizational context I have found obsessions of all types dysfunctional, and ultimately harmful to more than one stakeholder. Same for self-professed ‘obsessive’ managers. Further, I do not see ‘obsession’ in a job candidate as a positive attribute.

    Customer obsession, to borrow the words of Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft and Why We Drive, “provides a nearly non-rebuttable pretext for the expansion of an administrative state that has no bounding principle of its own, absent the forceful articulation of countervailing concerns that will necessarily look ‘irresponsible.’ ” Crawford was writing about safety enforcement, but in the face of Bezos-driven hype, who would be willing to call out similar concerns about customer obsession, and risk being castigated for ‘not being on the team’, or not being sufficiently ‘committed to customers’?

  16. Andy –

    The chemical mix of Bezos and a stated strategic vision and set of processes based on customer obsession also has the faint odor of cultural toxicity. Having experience this personally and professionally on more than one occasion (as an employee and as a consultant), it kind of reminds me of an early scene from the 2003 film, “Up In The Air”. Jason Bateman, as the boss, makes a boat out of a Post-It note and says to George Clooney, his employee: “This is the boat. Are you in or out of the boat?” The not-so-subtle inference was that, if Clooney didn’t buy into the scheme that Bateman wanted to follow, he could be out of a job. At Amazon, Bezos defined the mantra of obsession. As the founder and CEO, for employees, it was his way, or the highway.

    Michael

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