Why do only a handful of companies excel at cultivating customer loyalty?


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The story state of Customer Experience

Dave Brocks latest post (selling disguised as relationship management) and Beyond Philosophy’s Global Customer Experience Management Survey (2011) which made the point that a lot of stuff that is not Customer Experience is being badged as Customer experience got me thinking about this sorry state: lots of talk, lots of people with the right titles, lots of spend on technology and yet the same old organisational behaviour. Which begs the question: why it is that only a few companies truly excel at Customer Experience and customer-centricity? Now I can list all the usual candidates: spaghetti like systems, silos, channel proliferation, organisational design, conflicting agendas & metrics and so forth. That is exactly what I am not going to do because I believe that these are red herrings that are used to paper over what is so. So let’s take a skeptical look at business and see if this sheds any light.

The smuggler, the border guard and the wheelbarrow

Every day a man turns up at the border with a wheelbarrow and some stuff in it. Every day the border guard examines the stuff in the wheelbarrow convinced that the man is smuggling something. Some days the stuff is clothes, other days footwear, sometime watches, sometime blankets yet none of the stuff in the wheelbarrow is contraband and so the border guard reluctantly allows the man across the border. This goes on and on until the border guard retires. Shortly after that the border guard and the man meet accidentally and the border guard asks him to say what he was smuggling. The man replies “Wheelbarrows!”

Let’s stop for a moment and look at the whole customer stuff: customer satisfaction, customer focus, customer loyalty, customer relationship management, customer experience and customer-centricity. And ask the question: what is right in front of us that we are missing? What is our ‘wheelbarrow’?

The name of the game is neither Customer Experience nor customer-centricity

Is it easy to do well in a truly competitive industry? No, it is hard work. What is the ideal scenario for every company in a competitive space? To become the monopoly supplier. Why is this appealing? Because, you can dictate terms to the customers and they have to play ball. When you are in that position you do not have to bother with all this nonsense about customer focus: customers are difficult, being customer focussed is hard work and besides it stops you from making monopolistic rents. If you cannot have a pure monopoly then you can get something like it – and oligopoly. This is where a small bunch of companies control the market: they sell similar products, at similar prices, in similar ways and have the same business models. In effect, they ‘agree’ to carve up the market and the profits. Often these industries have high barriers to entry and so there is no real competition: think banks, utilities, telecoms…….The last thing that any CEO, Board of Directors or shareholders want is a truly competitive market. Why? Because you have to fight for customers and their wallet. Which brings us to an important point.

What has changed is that the traditional means of attaining this outcome no longer work as well as they used to. Originally there was control over valuable natural resources and distribution channels. Later, control of intellectual property and shaping the mind of the consumer through advertising, branding and PR. Since the rise of the internet the traditional means (resources, distribution, IP, advertising..) have not been working that well. Just think of the disruptive power of the internet: you no longer need stores and all the capital that goes with that; your market is the whole world and you do not even have to setup a website – you can pitch your tent at ebay and sell to the whole world; and customers are awash with useful information that makes them better informed, smarter decision makers and more discriminating buyers. This is why we have heard and read so much talk about targeted marketing, relationship marketing, permission marketing, personalisation, customer focus, customer service, customer experience, customer-centricity.

Does that mean that there has been a wholesale transformation of the heart (love of the customer) or of the head (change in worldview)? I am think that there has been no such change. The game is still the same: to orchestrate the levers of power to become monopolistic suppliers and thus extract monopolistic rents. And if that is not possible then many businesses do the utmost to get the better of customers (too many option, complicated pricing, misleading advertising, dumbing down customer service etc) to maximise short term profits. If it is the ‘age of the customer’ (IBM says it is) then we are talking about many businesses being dragged kicking and screaming into the ‘age of the customer’. Many if not almost all would prefer the good old times when customers had no voice, no power and simply put up with what they were given. Take a good look at the laggards (you know who they are) and you will notice that they still hold monopoly type positions, accrue monopolistic rents and continue to pay lip service to customer service and ‘the customer is king’.

If you see this then you can see the ‘wheelbarrow’ that is right in front of us and which we may have been missing: the vast majority of businesses want and strive to become monopolistic suppliers so that they can monopolistic rents without the hard work of being customer-centred. If you accept this then you can understand that whilst the titles of changed from “Sales” to “Relationship Manager” the hidden objective is the same: sell more, increase “share of wallet”. You can also understand why business process management, lean, cost-cutting via self-service technology, customer service, marketing etc have all been rebadged as Customer Experience – changing labels is the easy part and Drayton Bird has an excellent/witty post on this. Put differently, all the talk of customer focus, customer service, CRM, Social CRM, customer experience and customer-centricity is simply the bric-a-brac in the ‘wheelbarrow’ that prevents us from seeing the ‘wheelbarrow’ for what it is. Any real form of customer-centricity (as opposed to the talk) is being brought on by new entrants to the battleground. And by the power wielded by customers who now have the technologies and platforms to be better informed, make smarter decisions and make their voices heard.

To excel at customer-centricity, Customer Experience and customer loyalty you have travel along the road less travelled

Which bring me back to my original question: why do only a handful of companies excel at cultivating customer loyalty? Because by design or by accident the people who started these companies operate from a customer centred paradigm and have built customer-centred business models, cultures and organisations. And the leaders of these companies were willing to play the long term game. How long did it take for Amazon to become profitable? What about Zappos? Is USAA simply a vehicle for churning out profits for shareholders or an organisation with a mission to service members of the armed forces? Starbucks is a great example of a company that made it fortune by understanding customers human needs and delivering them (“the third place”) and then got itself into trouble by forgetting this mission (and associated values, operating practices) and chasing growth and profitability targets set by the analysts. Starbucks had to go back to the basics to connect with their customers and win them bac

Perhaps this handful of companies (Amazon, Starbucks, USAA, Zane Cycles, Zappos..) will provide the inspiration for authentic customer-centricity: O2 (UK mobile telecoms operator who does not think of itself as that) is a company that has embraced customer-centricity with a fervour that is necessary to be an experience services brand and organisation. In the process it has become the leader in the UK telecoms industry: brand, revenues, subscribers, profits. The recent Ofcom results show that “The least complained about mobile provider….was O2, with 0.02 complaints for every 1000 customers compared to 0.14 in the case of 3UK.” This is remarkable when you consider that O2 was spun off from a former state monopoly BT in 2001. And birth O2 was viewed as a second rate player in the telecoms market and some doubted its future prospects. Maybe more executives will follow the lead of O2 and genuinely orient their companies around customer, customer experience and customer-centricity.

A final word

To excel at Customer Experience and customer-centricity you have to have an affinity for people as human beings. I will go further and say that you have to connect with and care about your customers as human beings first and wallets second. Going even further I’d say you have to love your customers and show them that you love them. In my view this is and has always been the great (hidden) strength of Steve Jobs and Apple: a deep affinity for the misfits, the rebels, the people out to create a more beautiful world. If you can see merit in what I am saying then I recommend that you read the following insightful post by Pete Abilla: How to be human

What do you think?

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, you outdid yourself with this post.

    Over the years, a lot of banners have been raised with different names like CRM, customer-centricity, customer experience, etc. etc. And now social, of course.

    My view is that the standout leaders you mentioned never set out to “do” any of these things. Apple’s Steve Jobs wanted to build “insanely great” products. Zappos want to “deliver happiness.” And so on.

    Then armies of consultants, book writers and technology vendors come along to push the buzzword du jour and claim you too can be just like these leaders if you just follow my method or use my tool.

    Leadership, innovation, and passion is what sets these companies apart, not methodologies and tools. But if you don’t have leadership, you can still make money by — as you say — becoming a “monopoly” supplier. Or at least by locking in customers so they can’t easily leave.

    Thanks for an “insanely great” post!

  2. Bob

    For my part I thank you for an insanely great comment on my post. I thought long and hard about writing that post because I did not want to upset folks. Then I remembered that the whole purpose of my blogging is to add my genuine voice to the customer conversation. To take that skeptical look that many are not in a position to take.

    I even thought you (CustomerThink) may not publish this post. I offer you my apologies. And my gratitude.

    Be well and thank you for the opportunity to share my voice at CustomerThink.


  3. I appreciate the connection over how companies carve up a market, and I’ll be pondering different markets (e.g., tablet computers (Apple’s monopoly), banking, retail stores) all day to test your theory. It seems that every customer experience article references Zappos, which is a brand that definitely got it right in the company’s DNA (and made sure every employee, customer and blogger knew it!). Most of the “customer experience” and “customer relationship” hoohah over the past few years has been veiled sales of tools, but without fixing the organization when implementing the tools, it’s just painting the walls a new color.

    Great post – brain candy!

  4. Maz, customer-centricity is not the only way to profit in business. Nor is it the “easy” way.

    But my view is that business leaders who choose the customer-centric path and succeed will find many others fall by the wayside because it’s too much like work. Each business must find its own unique blend of strategy, leadership, culture, processes, tools, etc. that will differentiate the firm. Simply copying one element of what a “success story” does won’t work.

    At a recent executive meeting I told the group, if you want to be an industry leader like Amazon.com, Best Buy, Zappos, etc., you have to look for the more difficult problems to solve for your customers. When everyone else in your industry is doing essentially the same thing, be it CRM, CEM, or social media, it won’t deliver a sustainable competitive advantage. It may be necessary to keep up, but not enough to get ahead and stay ahead.

  5. For anyone interested in learning about another company that succeeded purely by it’s “love of the customer” I highly recommend, you take a look at “Anything You Want” by Derek Sivers :


    Inspiring little book for anyone that’s thinking about starting and running a “human focused” company.


  6. Hello Scott
    I thank you for taking the time to comment and share your perspective. Please do let me know how you get on with the testing! I take the Zen perspective “beleive nothing test everything out for yourself.”


  7. Hello Bob

    You and I are in agreement. I do not believe in copying nor do I believe in best practices. A practice may be best from an operation perspective and disastrous from a strategic perspective. A practice may be great for hitting the short term numbers and in the long term turns you into the same as everyone else.

    Your perspective on looking for the most difficult problems to solve for customers is a great way of looking at the world of customers and customer-centricity.


  8. Hello Aldo
    I thank you for sharing. For my part, I look forward to reading and learning. I wish you well.



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