Preparing for customer-centricity

Anil V. Pillai | Updated on January 22, 2018 Published on September 03, 2015

Getting it right   -  NAGARA GOPAL

What it takes to keep the customer at the centre of everything

Organisations, those that serve customers, believe they are customer-centric and indeed to some measure they are. The challenge arises when you set out to expand your customers and your teams to cater to an increase in business and revenue.

When businesses were small, owners knew each customer, their choices and why they came back. All this changed as businesses expanded.

Customer-centricity, simply put, is the capabilities of an entire enterprise (and not just the customer facing staff) to “single-mindedly” keep customers at the centre of the scheme of things with the intention of adding value.

This is different from being merely customer-focused, which has different connotations for different people. For some it means customer satisfaction, for some customer delight and yet for others, it could mean identifying needs of customers and delivering products and services that meet stated needs.

If being customer-centric is so intuitive, why is it so difficult to achieve? Why do many organisations believe they are customer-centric and are therefore shocked when their customers defect?

As organisations grow, they add flab with the muscle, fiefdoms are nurtured and created, silos become the norm, information and intelligence sharing become exceptions, employees are rewarded on outputs that exhibit proficiency in their functional areas and are not necessarily ones that add value to the customer – internal or external.

Inside out?

Too many seemingly brilliant insights and stratagems are thought through by organisational teams from within the cosy confines of their offices. The cornerstone of a great customer-centric culture is to garner a deep insight of the market, your customers’ current needs, their future needs, what your competition is doing now and what they intend to do ahead. Coming up with insights based on experience, gut, seniority is all well up to a point. The real cheese though is in the “Outside-In” approach to insights. For a moment, do not confuse insights with anodyne “Rate us on 1-5; how delighted are you with our new supersonic widget?” questionnaires. Insights are best gathered by trained professionals who have the wherewithal to extract the emotions, thoughts and actions that lead to customer buying and engagement behaviour. Get outside help in case you do not have internal teams that can do this.

Definitions matter

Based on deep insights, defining what constitutes value to the customer and to the enterprise would be the first step towards aligning for a unified customer objective. At each level, a clear and consistent definition of what are the specific behaviours required to be customer aligned would have to be defined. “How should a salesperson behave when faced with an irate customer? Or an important one? When badgered for an early shipment? How should the executive in accounting come across when declining credit check clearance on an important sale?” These are all situations encountered day in and day out. Without a clear guidance map, employees take it upon themselves to act and behave to the best of their own judgment. This is a sure recipe for inconsistency at best and severe customer discontent at worst.

Coupled with these behaviours are the intrinsic actions that need to be taken in such day-to-day situations. Picture this: You just bought this fancy new gizmo and it just does not work the way it is supposed to, so to return it and you go up to the store and you are met there by this calm, polite, ever-smiling, zen sales person who agrees with all that you say but will just not give the replacement you seek. Frustrating, is it not? This is what happens when employees have imbibed how they need to behave, but such behaviour is not necessarily tied to specific customer-centric actions. Behaviour tied to actions tends to be far more rooted in organisational culture.

Empowering employees and defining the limits of such empowerment are known to be a great way to tie actions to behaviour. I love what Starbucks does in this area. You order this fancy caramel macchiato, it is the first time you are trying it out, you collect it, take it to your table and the first sip tells you the coffee is not exactly what you thought it was. You take it back and sheepishly say so, and what does the barista do? No discussion, no rationalisation, no attempt at affixing blame; she smiles and replaces the coffee. That for you, is Behaviour and Action in harmony with Empowerment. Do not kid yourself into thinking that the barista acted from her own goodness of heart or your puppy dog eyes melted her heart. Significant designing, thinking and empowerment of the barista went into it.

Both behaviour and action are inadequate till the desired outcome of such action is defined and achieved. Take the gizmo which we wanted to return. We have a shop assistant who behaves appropriately, and takes the purchased device back, but what should the outcome for the customer and the firm be?

Merely agreeing to comply with customer demands means you have agreed with a customer desire. That is all. The outcome would have to be far better defined. Should it all result in a happy customer? A satisfied customer? An evangelical customer? It could be any of these, but it has to be clearly defined and add value to the customer and the enterprise.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success introduced us to the “10,000 hour rule”, which says that you need to train for 10,000 hours to be any kind of an expert in a chosen field. Leaders of the modern organisation do not have the luxury of having these many hours, and it is most likely that many an employee is not around for that long either.


Smart organisations invest in many hours of structured training and skilling of their teams in each of the crucial customer-centricity disciplines that form the essential framework that is customer centricity. These key disciplines are customer insight and foresight, competitor insight and foresight, strategic alignment, peripheral vision and cross-functional collaboration.

It is but human nature that people link their motivations to either fear or to reward and employees are no different. So there is this enormous effort that is put into defining behaviours, aligning them to action and outcomes, which is followed by investments in skilling and training. Then what happens?

You negate all this hard work by rewarding your people on internal efficiency metrics, not necessarily ones linked to customer-centricity or experience. One of the best examples I have ever seen of rewarding customer-centric culture does not come from a Fortune 500 or from a VC-funded e-commerce wunderkind, it comes from my hairdresser. Each time a repeat customer asks for a hairdresser by name, the hairdresser gets 20 per cent of that customer’s bill amount as his bonus. Now try and beat that!

Anil V Pillai is Director, Terragni Consulting

Published on September 03, 2015
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