Arguably since the dawn of business, companies have been operating in the age of the seller, where they control the product, marketing, and customer experience. However, the proliferation of digital, along with the plethora of channels and platforms that have come to the marketplace, are shifting control from businesses to customers. It is the customer who now controls access to information and the customer experience.
The "age of the customer" is in full swing.
“The ‘age of the customer’ is a term coined by Forrester, but it is the same concept as what is referred to as the ‘era of smart customers,’” said Michael Hinshaw, CEO of McorpCX and author of CMO.com's weekly “Get Customer-Centric” blog. “Smart customers are customers that leverage digital devices to access information, anywhere and anytime. What that means is the power in the relationship between companies and customers is in the process of shifting.”
Hinshaw gave an example of what smarter customers are capable of. A few weeks ago, Hinshaw was on the phone with a local business to find out whether a specific chair he was interested in came in different colors. The rep told him the chair was only made in one color--just as Hinshaw's office manager tapped him on the shoulder, phone in hand, and showed him that the chair did, in fact, come in four colors and was available at a different store just two blocks from the office. Hinshaw thanked the rep, hung up, and purchased from the nearby store.
This new, smarter customer Hinshaw described demands that companies be more customer-centric. The term “customer centric” means focusing on the needs and expectations of customers at every single touch point with the target market. And customer centricity is no longer just a loaded buzzword used by marketers preaching tactics such as personalization and customer experience. Customer centricity is a mind-set that companies need to adopt throughout the entire organization—not just marketing—to thrive in the digital world.
“To be truly customer-centric is to have every employee on every level of a company committed to the customer experience,” said Ty McMahan, senior director of marketing and content at StellaService, a company that measures and rates the customer-service performance of online retailers. “It's weaving a culture of service into the ethos of a business or brand and empowering an entire organization to have the ability to anticipate and react to customer needs.”
The need for more customer-centric organizational practices isn’t news to most companies. And while many preach the need for a bigger focus on the customer, the vast majority are still not executing. A number of hurdles are holding companies back from attaining true customer centricity.
The first major hurdle, according to Yvonne Genovese, an analyst at Gartner, is that there isn’t an owner within organizations who steps up and takes the reigns for building customer centricity throughout the business. Instead, a handful of people usually own various parts of the customer experience, and they typically don’t work together.
“Customer service owns one part of communicating with customers,” Genovese told CMO.com in an exclusive interview. “Marketing owns another part. The CEO owns a part. Virtually everyone owns it, but nobody owns it.”
Genovese said she’s not advocating that organizations need to have one single owner of the customer experience. She does, however, preach the need to have a single way to measure and manage customer centricity across all touch points.
Another major hurdle is the way organizations are structured, said Christine Cutten, a principal at Deloitte Consulting.
“Customer centricity requires coordination across traditional silos,” Cutten explained. “This includes bridging operations with marketing, sales, and customer service. This is not easy to do, given traditional incentives and leadership.”
But operating in silos negatively affects the experiences that potential and existing customers have with brands.
“Think about when you call your cable company or phone company,” Hinshaw said. “The first thing you are prompted to do is enter some sort of personal identifiable information in order to get to the next step in the IVR system or to be connected with customer service. Then once you are connected, that customer-service rep tells you they need that same information you just entered for your own security and safety. That’s BS. Their systems don’t connect.”
Hinshaw explained that today's smart customers understand that companies are collecting data based on interactions with them, and they understand this data can be used to make their lives easier. That's why Amazon is held up as an exemple for customer centricity. "Amazon uses data about your interactions to make your life better," Hinshaw said.
While data is key to customer centricity, it is also proving to contribute to the list of challenges that organizations face, Deloitte’s Cutten said. While virtually every organization now has analytics initiatives, the problem is a shortage of talent to conduct data integration and derive customer insights, she said.
“Good experiences are typically shaped by identified known or unmet needs and providing service around those,” Cutten said. “Channel proliferations leads to data proliferation, making identification of these needs really difficult. Companies are finding challenges in identifying the meaningful starting points.”
According to StellaService’s McMahan, miscommunication also holds companies back from true customer centricity. Inconsistency across organizations is common. For example, while marketing may be promoting a luxury product or experience, a customer-service agent or operator may be keeping a customer with questions about the product on hold for too long or providing inaccurate information.
“Internally communicating a company's core message and mission so it is reflected across the entire organization is key to mitigating this disconnect and the first step in becoming a customer-centric organization,” McMahan said.
Jen Gray, VP of marketing at HelloWorld, said what holds back a lot of organizations from being truly customer-centric is their thinking they know what’s best for the customer. Companies often build their businesses in a vacuum, she added.
“Don’t be the ostrich with your head in the sand,” Gray told CMO.com. “While you want to push the envelope, don’t be afraid of gathering honest feedback–and using it–no matter how big or small the pivot. This will foster a thirst for learning and a culture of constant improvement.”
A Road Map To Customer Centricity
So how does a brand get from where they are now to where they need to be? The first step, Cutten said, and Gartner’s Genovese echoed, is defining ownership. In some organizations, appointing a chief customer officer or chief customer experience officer is the answer. At other organizations, Genovese said, the answer is putting together a steering committee, of sorts, with constituents from various parts of the organization aligning on what it means for their particular business unit to be customer-centric.
“It must be a steering committee that has measures,” Genovese said. “It can’t be a steering committee that sits there and talks about things. They have to have measures of what it means to be customer-centric that impacts all touch points with a customer, and they also know where to stop and start based on the business strategy or business model of the company.”
Other more tactical starting steps, according to Cutten, include customer-journey mapping, triaging existing customer data to identify customer needs at a few touch points, embarking on a customer focus training program, and looking at realigning metrics.
“In the longer term, an optimized customer insights organization can drive the customer agenda,” Cutten said. “Reorganization is often a component to shift from silos to more end-to-end experiences.”
Gartner’s Genovese said that companies also need to understand what customer centricity means to their business strategy.
“You have to know what your customers want from you and then know where to draw the line,” Genovese said. “That business strategy will help you to guide where you draw the line of customer centricity.”
Companies must establish a baseline for customer-centricity measures, and they must continuously measure and hold people accountable, she said.
Once the entire company is aligned on a core message and commitment to the customer experience, organizations need to focus on refining and coordinating every aspect of its business that affects the customer. Standardization and a commitment to maintaining or exceeding those standards should be ingrained in each employee's day-to-day, McMahan told CMO.com.
"Those companies that truly are customer-centric listen to customers and put them at center of what they do,” MCorpCX's Hinshaw said. “They use information about customers to make the customer's life better and easier. Those are the companies that will be most successful, and not the ones just pushing products and features.”
HelloWorld’s Gray suggested that companies institute a true, formal feedback loop in all parts of the organization that deal directly with customers.
“Whether you think you’re good or maybe even a mind-reader, you’re not,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. What’s the worst that can happen? A customer will tell you an area where they think you may be falling down, in turn creating an opportunity for you to improve. It may sting for a bit, but collect the feedback, review, look for trends, be transparent about the learnings, and act on them. You will also learn what you are doing right–so you and your team can do more of it. Remember, perception is reality. You have to understand it to change it. Feedback is a gift.”
Typically the CMO owns the customer insights and analytics organization and can provide the first steps in helping to identify customer needs, Deloitte’s Cutten told CMO.com. CMOs can also build the insights team to focus on customer journeys, segmentation, and building out personas.
“In essence, CMOs can become the headlights to a customer-centric organization,” Cutten said.
Marketing is also in a unique role in its ability to measure customer centricity once the KPIs have been laid out, Genovese said.
“Marketing has the best, 360-degree view of the customer, the target market, how the product or service is performing, and what things you need to do to make sure you’re meeting customer service, customer demand, as well as making money with that customer demand,” Genovese said.
Mark Asher, director of corporate strategy at Adobe, told CMO.com, that the marketing organization plays a key role in nurturing a customer-centric organization since it shapes the attributes of the company’s brand and creates the environment for engaging new customers.
“The marketing organization can and should influence all the other areas of the company where there are customer touch points–sales, support, upgrades, renewals, etc.–since the journey doesn’t end when a customer makes a purchase,” he said.
Here's what the Twitterverse is saying about customer centricity: