What Customer-Centric Companies Must Do To Become Customer-Obsessed.


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In building relationships with customers, and value for them, my long-time observation is that most organizations tend to progress through several stages of performance as they are becoming truly customer-centric: a) customer awareness, b) customer sensitivity, c) customer focus, and d) customer obsession.

Here is the ‘executive summary’ version of some conditions of each stage, and how the movement to customer obsession takes place within the enterprise.

Customer Awareness

– Customers are known, but in the aggregate – Organization believes it can select its customers and understand their needs – Measurement of performance is rudimentary, if it exists at all; and customer data are siloed – Traditional, hierarchical, top-down management model, ‘chimneyed’ or ‘smokestack’ communication (goes up or down, but not horizontal) with little evidence of teaming

Customer Sensitivity

– Customers are known, but still mostly in the aggregate – Customer service is somewhat more evident (though still viewed as a cost center), with a focus on complaint and problem resolution (but not proactive complaint generation; internal groups tend to point fingers and blame each other for negative customer issues – Measurement is mostly around customer attitudes and functional transactions, i.e. satisfaction, with little awareness of emotional relationship drivers – Principally traditional, hierarchical, top-down management model, ‘chimneyed’ or ‘smokestack’ communication (goes up or down, but not horizontal) with some evidence of teaming (mostly in areas of complaint resolution)

Customer Focus

– Customers and both known and valued, down to the individual level, and they are recognized as having different needs, both functional and emotional – Customer life cycle is front-and-center; and performance measurement is much more about emotion and value drivers than satisfaction – Service and value provision is regarded as an enterprise priority; and customer stabilization and recovery are goals when problems or complaints arise – Communication and collaboration with customers, between employees, and between employees and customers is featured – Management model and style is considerably more horizontal, with greater emphasis on teaming to improve customer value processes

It’s notable that, at this more evolved and advanced stage of enterprise customer-centricity, complaints are thought of more in terms of a life cycle component, and recovery is more of a strategy than resolution:

Customer Obsession

– Throughout the organization, customer needs and expectations – especially those that are emotional – are well understood, and response is appropriate (and often proactive)

– Everyone is involved in providing value to customers – from C-suite to front-line – and everyone understands his/her role. Customer behavior is recognized as essential to enterprise success, and optimal relationships are sought

– Performance measurement is focused, and shared, on what most monetizes customer behavior (loyalty, emotion, and communication metrics such as brand bonding and advocacy, replacing satisfaction and recommendation)

– Customer service (along with pipelines and processes) is an enterprise priority, and seen as a vital, and profitable, element of value delivery

– Management model is far more horizontal, replacing traditional hierarchy; and there is an emphasis on teaming, and inclusion of customers, to create or enhance value

Companies that are customer-obsessed, and what makes them both unique and successful, have been extensively profiled by consultants and the business press. Often, they go so far as to create emotionally-driven, engaged and even branded experiences for their customers, strategically differentiating them from their peers.

In addition, these companies focus on the complete customer life cycle, and much more on retention, loyalty and risk mitigation (and even winback) than acquisition. Support experiences are strategic, nimble and seamless, and often omni-channel. Multiple sources of data are used to develop insights. Recognizing the information needs of their customers, they invest in altruistic content creation (over advertising); and they communicate proactively and in as personalized a manner as possible.

Customer obsession, what I refer to as ‘inside-out’ customer-centricity, has been a frequent subject of my blogs and articles. We’ve seen many examples of companies that have, or created, these kinds of cultures and levels of value delivery: Zappos, SunTrust Bank, Wegmans, Southwest Airlines, IKEA, Virgin, Rackspace, Disney, Zane’s Cycles, USAA, Target, Ritz Carlton, IBM, QVC, Umpqua Bank, Costa Coffee, etc. One of Albert Einstein’s iconic quotes reflects the complete dedication, of resources and values, needed for an organization to optimize its relationships with customers: “Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master.” Mastery requires, as well, a storehouse of experience coming from experimentation; so, just like in the pole vault and high jump, we can expect that the customer-centricity bar will continue to be raised.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.