Customer-centricity is the latest buzzword for a cornucopia of newly popularized technologies and theories, such as Twitter-based customer service, online communities, and new management methodologies intended to get closer to the customer.
Yet the nirvana that comes with cracking the customer-centricity nut remains elusive. Customers are increasingly less loyal, more discerning in who they do business with, and very disappointed in their interactions with marketing and sales.
Customer centricity is not a new-fangled shiny toy; it has been a core principle of business since before the 1700s. It’s not something that requires more complexity and advanced technology to solve; it’s something that needs to be rescued from our past.
In the early days of commerce, we purchased from our friends and neighbors. We paid the candle-maker or the farmer directly. It was relatively easy for a two-person shop to have a maniacal focus on customers. The Industrial Revolution changed our tune. Concepts like the division of labor and intense process optimization became the predominant management theory at a time when agriculture and manufacturing made of 70 percent of GDP.
And it worked. The division of labor was triumphant in its day, but in today’s knowledge worker environment, it creates overspecialized functional departments. Unlike hierarchical command-and-control structures of past, today’s knowledge workers have to collaborate with each other, with customers, and with suppliers in order to get their jobs done. And if your company is striving to be agile and respond to market conditions quickly, then even more collaboration is needed.
Studies show we now spend 20 to 80 percent of our day in meetings. The problem is that’s a lot of time talking to ourselves, instead of our customers. When we spend that much time talking to ourselves, the company convinces itself that its product is the best thing since sliced bread. Each department is pushing out reports that show how amazing it is. Employees focus more on perceived performance by their colleagues than by customers. The company envelops itself instead of its customers.
We lost track of customer centricity largely because CEOs still look to run their organization like an assembly line of processes and information. The intense focus is on profit and process optimization. This leads to more structure and silos that, in turn, buy more and more software in an effort to tear down silos and automate relationships with customers, which was part of the problem all along.
Process can be a good thing, as can automated communications, but what’s needed is to replace the vast quantities of the time we spend talking to ourselves with time talking to customers. Actually talking to them, in-person, face-to-face, just like the good ‘ole days.
According to Susan Lucas-Conwell, global CEO of the Great Place to Work Institute, corporate culture may be a culprit of our disconnect with customers. Surveys show that two-thirds of employees are not engaged in their work. Some call it an engagement crisis. Instead of trying to improve the performance of knowledge workers through process optimization, Lucas-Conwell says knowledge workers perform best when they are in an environment of trust where they can take pride in their work.
Employees who are not invested in their work lose focus of the customer. Disengaged workers focus on how their peers and managers perceive their performance, create inflated and slanted reports to justify their roles or prove their success, and build a resume for their next job. Inspired employees naturally aim to please the customer. In many cases, replacing our investments in software with investments in our culture and staff will offer better returns in productivity and effectiveness.
Mark Fidelman, CEO of Evolve!, a social business consultancy, says customer centricity has always been important, but has only resurfaced to the corporate agenda because social media has given us greater transparency into what people are saying. In his recent book “Socialized,” Fidelman said leaders have figured out the causal relationship between corporate culture and quality of customer loyalty, and that customers are loyal when employees are loyal. He pointed out that CEOs with a command-and-control style of leadership inhibit the benefits of transparency that give customers more trust in the organization.
My company, New Business Strategies, has reached similar conclusions in our own research. Our Seller’s Compass methodology was based on interviews and analysis of how Fortune 100 companies purchase B2B technology. We found that trust was so central to buying decisions that prospects intentionally tested vendors to see if they could be trusted. Trust was more important to prospects than the product itself.
Technology, online communities, Twitter-based customer service–these are all useful tools in the quiver. But customers can’t always build a relationship with a computer screen or an app. And companies need to get out of their own heads. Organizations should consider simpler, more personal, and more direct conversations to improve customer-centricity, rather than complicated and automated plans.