We frequently hear from business leaders about the value of being “customer-centric”—putting the customer at the center of every decision and action a company takes. At a time when openness, empathy, and, in particular, trust feel like they’re in short supply, is it even possible for businesses to achieve customer centricity?
In my experience as CEO (and now podcaster) of C Space, I’ve heard unanimous validation from leaders in business, media, and academia on the benefits of being a customer-inspired organization—for both customers and for companies. Here are the lessons I have gleaned in speaking with the people who practice this day in and day out.
1. Customer Experience Is Everyone’s Job
Regardless of industry, broad ownership of—and accountability for—the customer experience moves employees to become more deeply invested in seeing the world, and the business, from the customer’s perspective. Further, it helps to create a clear mission, sharpen focus, and build consensus.
At The New York Times, for example, the customer experience starts with the organization’s chief executive, Mark Thompson, and carries through to the journalists in the newsroom. “[Our customers] are citizens of the world,” said Ejieme Eromosele, managing director of customer experience at The Times. “We have a responsibility to them and the journalism we produce.”
2. Act As An Internal Customer Consultancy
Leaders at both General Electric and Hewlett Packard Enterprise elaborated on the benefits of treating research and insights as an internal customer consultancy that partners with internal “clients,” like sales, R&D, and marketing. They insist that it’s the most effective way to disseminate a 360-degree view of customers across an organization.
Paul Logue, vice president of growth analytics, market insights, and customer experience at HPE, explained that by fusing customer experience, insights, and data analytics into an integrated service, he’s fostering a deeper connection with customers and faster, more quality decision-making across the entire organization.
“They want actionable intelligence,” he said of the departments at HPE with which his team partners. “You can’t just have data. You have to have the data and the consultative [ability to] connect the dots to tell the story.”
3. Operate With A Challenger Mentality
So many business leaders worry about “disruption”—from new startup competitors that are stealing market share and appealing to customers’ heightened expectations, and as PwC found last year, from customers themselves.
Jonathan Craig, CMO at Charles Schwab, shared how the financial industry leader confronts this reality.
“We are willing to disrupt ourselves in the short term for the benefit of better long-term outcomes for our clients,” he said. They operate like a nimble “challenger brand,” which has allowed them to introduce new products and services that best meet the needs of their customers.
4. Compete Against Your Customer’s ‘Last Best Experience’
Customer experience leaders from Citi, Marriott, and Verizon spoke candidly about how customer experience, more so than product or service, is becoming a brand’s primary differentiator. They agreed that competition crosses industries, and so the experience better be stellar at every customer touch point.
Justin Reilly, head of customer experience innovation at Verizon Fios, illustrated it best: “Today, if you pop open the Uber app and you get an Uber in one click, and then you open the MyFios app and it isn’t as good as or better than the Uber experience, you’re going to judge us on that experience. That’s our guidepost. We’re not competing against our immediate competitors or even our adjacent competitors. We’re competing against every customer’s last best experience.”
5. Demand A Clear Purpose And Mission
Too often, “brand promises” fail because they are driven by marketing and not the culture of the organization. Creating a culture starts with finding an authentic purpose to the company’s mission.
Jeff VanDeVelde, who led customer experience at SunTrust Bank, said his team took an “outside in” approach to crafting its purpose and promise. This required fundamentally reframing the way the bank saw itself, and how customers saw the bank.
“We needed to start with a different purpose to answer the question: Why is it that SunTrust exists?” VanDeVelde said. Ever since, the bank has used this as a rallying cry for staying true to its mission and close to its customers.
6. Be Passionate And Create Buy-In
A company’s mission is only as good as the employees who deliver it. If they don’t believe in the mission, it stands little chance of succeeding.
Alice Milligan, chief customer and digital experience officer of Citi’s global cards business, underscored the importance of “finding people in the organization—whether they’re internal or people who you recruit from outside—who are really believers, who embody [the vision], who are passionate about it.”
And when Panera Bread, America’s ninth largest restaurant chain, announced it was committing to 100% “clean” food, Panera president Blaine Hurst said employees immediately embraced the challenge. According to Blaine, when leadership sets a goal that actually makes sense and rings true, a renewed energy from internal teams to actually make it happen is nothing short of phenomenal.
7. Be A Constant Student Of Your Customers
Having “chief” in your title doesn’t mean you’re exempt from the responsibility of understanding your customers. If anything, you’re the most responsible.
This sentiment was echoed by Harvard Business School professor Len Schlesinger, who encourages senior leaders to “recognize that customer centricity has to be built into the fiber and fabric of the organization as opposed to an episodic level of attention to customers.” Further, he laughed at the countless times he’s heard executives or articles proclaim, “It’s 2017—the year of the customer!”
“It is always the year of the customer,” he asserted.
Emily Culp, CMO at Keds, agrees. When asked how the 100-year-old women’s footwear icon is able to stay relevant and modern, she said, “Frankly, [by] just being a student of her. What keeps us maniacally focused is thinking about our consumer today. She drives everything we do.”
8. Protect The Spirit Of An Insight
A project can fail for many reasons, and it takes a strong leader to know when to say “enough.”
I love the story Jennifer Hsieh, vice president of insight, strategy and innovation at Marriott International, told about a project she worked on to create a better guest experience for families. Parents had repeatedly mentioned how challenging it was to get their kids to go to bed at night during vacation.
Marriott wanted to help by re-creating a fun and familiar pre-bedtime ritual for kids: milk and cookies. Soon after the work began, however, Hsieh’s team ran into operational hurdles, like food safety requirements for the cookies and having enough staff on hand to monitor distribution. The result was a clunky guest experience that no longer embodied the spirit of the original insight. So Marriott quickly abandoned it.
9. Make Your Business More Human
Finally, the best piece of advice is perhaps the simplest: Be more human. Or, as Schlesinger put it: “Find out who your customers are, find out what they want, and try to give it to them.”
This was echoed by everyone, from leaders at big tech companies like LinkedIn and Oracle to the 32-year-old CEO of the indoor trampoline park franchise Sky Zone. These companies are succeeding because they’re getting as close as possible to customers. They’re embracing the fundamentals. And they’re doing it all with customers by their side.