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  • Writer's pictureHubert Saint-Onge

Realizing the potential of customer-centricity

Customer centricity has been a key theme in my practice for the last 20 years. I find the lack of attention given to this work in most organizations mystifying. Of course, there are a few exceptions, and those businesses benefit significantly from their efforts. The multi-faceted strategy required may appear daunting at first. The main finding from my experience in this area is that a targeted, comprehensive approach supported by an action-oriented strategy is relatively straightforward and will make the difference between a superficial flash in the pan (as it happens too often) and a sustained effort with everyone’s commitment.        

Many organizations have claimed to have implemented customer-centricity initiatives in the last few years. However, few companies have sustained the systematic execution of a customer-centricity strategy.  Some organizations have invested in customer-centricity, but their leadership's attention has often eroded. Despite lofty declarations, little lasting progress has taken place. Few firms, such as USAA, have actively continued to deepen customer-centricity in their organization over several years.  Their customers will tell you numerous stories to that effect.

Embedding customer-centricity in an organization requires consistent leadership attention over several years. The gravitational pull of internally oriented challenges related to talent, structure, technology, margin and growth has displaced the external focus on creating lasting customer experience. Some organizations have been distracted by significant projects like implementing major new systems and have lost their focus on the customer over time. Many of them continue to make claims as a thin veil over the less vaulted reality of their customers’ experience.

The sustainable creation of positive customer experiences requires a comprehensive, organization-wide customer-centricity strategy. Some leaders look to simplify the approach by narrowing the focus of their ‘customer-centricity’ efforts to “customer-facing” employees. Such an approach invariably fails. These employees are the ones who end up having to face disgruntled customers that result from failures to meet standards on delivery, quality or a plethora of other reasons. Over time they choose to avoid dealing with customers instead of assuming the burden of their irritation. These employees know only too well that they are on the front lines, left to pick up the deficiencies of others.

How to reinforce customer-centricity? 

Three factors are required to revive customer-centricity: organizational culture, employee experience and processes geared to delight customers.

First, customer-centricity is primarily a function of the culture with the shared mindset of consistently delighting customers. Just saying this is an important focus won’t get the job done. It involves ongoing senior leadership attention, frequent messages, and constant reinforcement with examples of successes and examples that can serve as learning opportunities. Pious declarations by senior leadership that customer experience is the key to success will not cut it.

Second, the link between employee and customer experience is straightforward: employees who have become dissatisfied cannot bring the energy and commitment needed to create a superior experience for customers.  Only if employees' contribution is recognized will they come across in a manner that will give customers the confidence that they are taking their interest at heart.   

Third, processes and the technology supporting them keep changing to address internal challenges. These modifications are unlikely to consider the customer experience if it is not at the forefront of everyone’s mind. No one is badly intended. Those involved in the reshaping processes address internal challenges, but their internal orientation often makes them oblivious to customer implications.  The people dealing directly with customers are often not involved.  

It is important to embed a change management dimension in the action plan that flows from the strategy. The people involved across the organization need to understand the rationale for what is being done. Once that shared understanding is achieved, people will get on side and make it happen. They will feel relieved that this is genuinely moving forward.

What are the key elements of a comprehensive customer-centricity strategy? 

Managing customer experience requires a carefully crafted strategy that weaves culture, processes, employee experience, and customer interactions together.  This strategy has to be reinforced and renewed with an unrelenting commitment. Without sustained attention over time, it will fail to realize its potential benefits.

Conditions for success, overarching principles and targeted outcomes are critical elements of a customer-centricity strategy.         

Conditions for the success of a customer-centricity strategy

1.     An integrated approach must be architected and applied rigorously to ensure a consistent customer experience across all interactions across the organization's customer journeys.

2.     Engaging and empowering employees is essential for shared ownership of the customer experience.

3.     Monitoring, measuring and learning from the various aspects of the customer experience will create a decisive market advantage that deepens the organization’s commitment.

4.     The culture must evolve in line with the customer experience requirements. Generating compelling customer experiences has to become part of the company's identity, shared mindsets and market presence.

5.     Leaders must lead by example. They must emphasize the importance of the customer experience by guiding and recognizing people throughout the organization..

The principles guiding the development of a customer-centricity strategy

1.     Leaders must focus on establishing a culture that fosters meeting the attributes of the targeted customer experience. Their commitment will be recognized through their example, the decisions they make, the oversight they exercise and the exemplary customer experience stories they share.

2.     Customer experience projects will be carried out throughout the organization, regardless of organizational structures. As the customer experience is fundamentally cross-functional, these principles must be applied consistently - the weakest link determines the quality of the interaction perceived by the customer.

3.     All stakeholders in the organization will exemplify and champion taking the customer's perspective.   

4.     Developing a unique customer experience must not be achieved at the expense of profitability; on the contrary, it aims to produce profitable growth.

5.     The technology supporting the processes touching clients must be shaped with the customer experience in mind.

6.     Customer-centricity initiatives will be carefully planned over time, using a comprehensive, step-by-step approach.

7.     Constant monitoring and immediate response will be standard practice.

8.     Performance measurement will be developed to ensure that customer-centric investments bring business benefits. The multi-year strategy will define a portfolio of self-financed projects focused on achieving the ultimate customer experience goals.

9.     Management efforts will focus on mobilizing and recognizing employees to support the customer experience.

The targeted outcomes of a customer-centricity strategy

1.     Technology: processes and systems are designed to create a uniformly superior customer experience.

2.     Talent: Improving employee experience enhances their retention.  

3.     Organization: Cross-functional collaboration becomes imperative to ensure that the vertical structure of the organization is invisible to the customer.

4.     Customer Effort: Fulfilling an order requires minimal effort on the customer's part.   

5.     Monitoring: Measurement tools are in place to identify and respond without delay to opportunities for improvement.

6.     Financial Impact:  For instance, when customers stop calling with complaints, it becomes possible to reduce costs related to customer service. When customers return because of an excellent experience, sales costs related to customer acquisition costs are reduced considerably.  Beyond cost savings and profitability enhancements, an effective strategy is geared to accelerate growth. Highly satisfied customers become promoters.

The customer experience imperative

Customers who experience disappointments in their dealings with a supplier don’t forget easily and tend to share their impressions and generalize from isolated experiences. Customer centricity can have a significant long-term impact on the overall performance of the business. As shown by leading organizations such as Amazon, Zappos and Apple, a disciplined approach to crafting, executing, and refining a customer-centricity strategy will bring significant rewards.  


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