Customer-centricity: It’s not what you think it is…

Customer-centricity: It's not what you think it is...

Customer-centricity and customer experience is in vogue at the moment. There has been a surge of white papers and books from all sorts of clever people; all the major consulting houses have large expensively assembled practices dedicated to it and every organisation seems to have stated strategies or ambitions to deliver customer-centricity.

For some it means fixing service, for others it’s the desire to “put the customer at the centre of everything you do”. Despite the ubiquity of the term, customer-centricity remains at best, broad, and at worst, misleading, because it translates as a smokescreen for business-as-usual – produce more, produce cheaper, work harder. At the heart of the problem remains the definition of customer-centricity. What is it? What does it mean?

I love the concept of customer-centricity, but I worry about it. I worry that this is what employees across the land will start to call “another management thing” or worse just “too fluffy”. Let’s face it – we have lots of “management things” in corporations these days. These are the bandwagons upon which leadership hops when the going gets tough or the competition start doing things. The risk of being seen as a fad or “fluffy” is because of lack of definition of what it means beyond the vague.

Perhaps it’s time to evaluate if customer-centricity is a fad or a true value dimension from which senior leaders can help drive their companies towards better performance and cultural change. If customer-centricity is going to be better embraced as the key to informing and advancing strategy then it feels like we need to treat it with more value by finding a definition that better fits.

Little consensus

Beyond the nebulous definition of “putting the customer at the heart of everything we do” there is little consensus regarding what customer-centricity actually is. Outwardly it’s got a very simple meaning and that’s where the problem begins - it’s simple to understand why you would want to be customer-centric when you take note of the truth that customers are the basis of company profitability.
The problem arises when you take the idea of “putting the customer at the heart of everything we do” and start to try and apply it. When you start trying to drive meaning and translate that into action from the organisation perspective, that’s when it becomes more disjointed, because isn’t considering customers what all businesses do anyway?

You know you’ve got a challenge when people (read sales or any customer-facing departments) start telling you that, “If only we had a good CRM” or worse “we get this customer-centric agenda it’s just the rest of the organisation doesn’t get it”..... Ever heard that before?
Some regard customer-centricity as being virtually synonymous with customer service. Some believe it only applicable in sales and marketing functions whilst others actually speak to concepts such as customer experience, NPS, operational excellence, know-how, understanding, culture, etc., when speaking about or trying to define customer-centricity. None are wrong, however, they speak to execution (the what you do) they just don’t capture the true essence of what customer-centricity actually is.

Some clarification

To clarify the definition - or at least contribute to some enhancing debate which hopefully leads to an improved body of knowledge - I suggest that customer-centricity is not actually the practice of doing what your customer wants; it’s actually an outcome, an outcome of how you create mutual value. The evidence that you are customer-centric comes from the customers that matter to you saying that you are, it comes from your ability to pivot and change with the times and it comes from your long-term growing balance sheet.

You achieve your customer-centric outcome by creating habits that change the rhythm within your organisation, habits that change with your supporters. You need to create habits that of course start with understanding the customers that matter to you but also include, how you prevent problems occurring for them, how you detect problems that might occur for them, how you differentiate your approach in a way that means something to them, and how you interact with them in a way that has the right and consistent feeling and meaning in it for them to want to engage with you.

So customer-centricity is, to put it simply, an outcome - an outcome of when you can’t see any daylight between what you believe, what you practice, what you offer, and what you say about yourself. It's not soft and fluffy; it's actually hard, and about humility and performance. It's not about being all things to all people, it's about being authentic. The best in business get this, the mediocre want to or try to get it, and the others are playing a race to the bottom where before too long they might not exist.

Customer experience, NPS, operational excellence, know-how, understanding, culture, etc., can all help you to develop and ultimately deliver, but just because you do these things doesn’t mean you’re customer-centric. You’re customer-centric when your customers together with your performance says so. But just because you are doesn’t mean you’ll always be, and that’s why it’s complex and challenging - no one said it was easy.