Richard B-Blog

Customer centricity: a bet, a belief, or a necessity?

Adapted and translated from my original HBR article

What is “customer centricity”? Is it a new managerial trend, just like agility or happiness at work? A belief that customers should be first (and employees second), or simply a business necessity: that of being actively concerned about your customers to avoid losing them? To answer this question, I have interviewed a dozen of Customer Experience (CX) leaders from various sectors (automotive, luxury, retail, energy, banking, hospitality, packaged goods, etc.) whose job is precisely to bring this customer centricity to life in their company. What I discovered – or rather felt – in contact with these “apostles” of customer centricity leads me to draw an unexpected analogy with the field of faith and religious practices. Indeed, this parallel helps illuminate the dynamics of emotional adherence to customer centricity.

A widely shared belief:

The semantics used by these CX champions to talk about Customer centricity reveal that this quest is first a matter of deep belief. Some evoked a creed, a profession of faith, others used the term “communion” with the client or highlighted a need for “evangelization”. What they have in common is their conviction that there is an invisible link between the effort required to acquire customer intelligence and business development. Even if they recognize that their organization does not always make the necessary efforts.

Whether it is the CEO of a start-up, for whom customers are a reason to exist, or the sales manager who bets on intimacy with his customers to grow, customer centrality would therefore have much in common with faith. With the word “faith”, from the Latin “fides” (trust), I am referring to an entrepreneurial belief, which is therefore neither religious nor moral, but which has great similarities. Is not “faith” a hope for things that are not seen and that are true? Here, it is also a driving principle of the business.

Faith does not require proof

Like the faithful, champions of customer centricity do not really need proof to believe. They do not derive their motivation from ROI calculations. A miracle in a part of the business is enough for them to herald the case with passion and engage the rest of the organization. Also, the voluntary act of believing precedes and nourishes the act of moving mountains: the demonstration of the effects of faith only comes later and appears like an ex-post truth to everyone. On the other hand, when faith is eroding, the whole business can be threatened.

Many people in the company talk about “customer centricity” without ever having met with customers. Others emphasize importance of “knowing” them without emotionally embracing it. And while some frontline services are enthusiastic zealots, many remain on the sidelines, still doubting the value of spending time on them. Centricity dogma remains displayed in the verses of “mission statements”, or the tables of the”KPIs”, but inhabited leaders are becoming rare. That is a pity, because the person who has made an act of faith voluntarily commits himself to serve an ideal in which he believes. And shared belief is one of the most powerful drivers of behaviors within organizations. So why is it so often lacking when it comes to customers? “It’s hard to convince an engineer that emotion counts in the customer’s experience. Our systems strive to produce ever more quality by optimizing processes. But a simple proof of care sometimes does a better job than trying to fix never ending frictions” says a marketing and customer knowledge manager in the energy sector.

Some Leaders have chosen alternative faiths

As heirs to organizations that already have a large client base, some executives have chosen to revere the stock market price first, or to focus on optimizing internal operations. Others swear by their technology, or love their brand, and think that selling one or the other will be enough to get them adopted. There are also the “Saint Thomas” who will only invest in the customer experience when they have been provided with proof of the expected ROI. Fortunately, just like science and faith, management excellence and customer centricity are two domains that can coexist. Some CEO’s converted themselves after meeting an inspiring apostle on the board of directors. Because rethinking the company’s principles of action towards its customers remains the cornerstone of any transformation project.

“Our comex is above all shareholder-oriented! “, regrets a data and customer insights director in the banking sector. Indeed, the Holy Trinity of the shareholder, the client and the employee is rarely embodied in a management board where everyone would sit on an equal footing. The customer is mentioned everywhere, at the risk of being nowhere. And the current functional representation (via customer service, market-research or quality services) lacks a 360° vision. In the absence of a dedicated role in the management bodies, the customer often ends up as a secondary priority. However “worshipping” the customer is not a solution either: but being aware of the interdependence that some decisions will have on the sustainability of the relationship can help better arbitrations. “We feel that we are trapped in a system that has become perverted, where justification or cheating at the KPIs mobilize more effort than real attention to the customer,” deplores a customer relations manager in the automotive sector.

Top-down” approaches that once again require employees to change their work habits do nothing to help open up to this faith. It is also increasingly difficult to assess the impact of one’s activity on the customer experience, due to the fragmentation of tasks and the scope of organizations. Without a customer pilgrimage carried by the institutions to organize encounter, customers will be kept at a distance. Because for many, going to the customer is frightening: what if he is dissatisfied when I have nothing to do with it? What if he doesn’t agree with my proposals and jeopardizes my projects? Can we trust the judgments of customers who are neither experts nor agree among themselves? In addition, reaching them requires a major effort: time, money, logistics… and a change of perspective for the collective. These are often incompatible with the requirements of cost, deadlines and personal stakes. So why should you be surprised if customers are not “central” if the first contact reveals so many constraints without apparent benefits? Without the will of the leaders to break down these multiple barriers: everything naturally opposes the development of faith in customer centrality. A director of customer experience in retail insists: “Making employees understand customer orientation is not just a matter of internal communication, it must be experienced in the field and it is too important a subject to simply approach it as an HR topic”.

Emotional levers to activate

How can we ensure that the leaders carry, or recover this faith? How to accelerate its contagion within teams? These are all questions to which rational solutions of indicators, incentives, ROI, and window-dressing will not provide satisfying answers. The most powerful levers are emotional in nature: and unfortunately, this is an area that companies have difficulty converting into an action plan. Some now integrate empathy with the customer into their development processes, others rely on individual initiatives. Most of them roll-out speeches of leaders. But all of them know that preaching is not enough, you must embody the word “customer” and encourage long-term initiatives to obtain results! “Companies like to script, standardize, yet the temptation of standardizing goes against the very idea of true personalization: the “out of process” via employee autonomy often makes the difference,” says a director of customer experience in the hospitality industry.

Apart from some visionary companies such as Zappos, Décathlon, Hilton or Leroy Merlin, which have a culture worthy of an evangelization plan, very few organizations are ahead of the curve. Because faith must be revealed by the example of the leader, transmitted by ambassadors, and lived daily by employees through rituals, places and a calendar. The collective’s customer orientation mentality is in fact a prerequisite for action. And customer centricity is not something that can be imposed, it should win the heart of every individual. This requires creating an environment that encourages positive behaviours, and engaging people based on inspiring stories for the community.

There are many techniques to activate these cultural drivers, but most often it is the overall plan that is missing to maintain and develop customer centrality. Analogy with faith can help structure the initiatives. As a starting point, here are some stimulating questions to ask your organizations:

  • Do your leaders engage people and have they found apostles to support them?
  • Is there a founding customer story, an inspiring narrative supporting company’s purpose?
  • Does your brand embody its relationship with customers: what unique contract does it establish with them?
  • Do you materialize the presence of the customer within the company building?
  • Do you have a place that celebrates this customer relationship, and is dedicated to always improving it?
  • Do your communities share their customer stories in group rituals?
  • Are your most active communities visible, close to the field, in contact with the customer?
  • Do they welcome agnostics and difficult cases with the same kindness?
  • Do you have a calendar that punctuates the highlights of the collective narrative?
  • Do your events each have their own individual and collective emotional “client” levers?

“Passion is not enough, you have to repeat, practice, be coached to achieve true ease and intimacy in your relationship with the customer, and often you have to test and learn” says a retail director experienced in luxury. So, if you too want to increase customer centricity at the heart of your organizations, don’t rely solely on grace! Growing this faith requires method and discipline, as well as strong emotional intelligence. In that sense, it is at the same time a bet and a necessity. As such, this effort should materialize as a dedicated project, with its leader, its apostles, and its timetable. And only then will you provide meaning to the other projects :  “tool” centered or “KPI” centered, thanks to the story that the brand will deliver to its customers and employees.