When organisations forget about customers

Think customer – the obvious

Most people in the ‘front line’ of organisations think customer, perhaps the immediacy of face to face or direct contact makes for a better, personal connection. There’s nothing more immediate, relevant or real than talking to customers, ‘feeling’ what they say, ‘getting it’, so why do organisations tend to forget this? Why isn’t this sense of connection part of corporate memory and a repeatable experience for customers? Why doesn’t the feeling last? Where in the organisation does this become something other than a human connection? What happens between the ‘coal face’ and the heart of the organisation?

Everyone by now has heard about ‘putting the customer at the heart of the organisation’, everyone knows about customer centricity, ‘customer intimacy’. We are all customers and consumers – so what’s the problem? Why do some organisations forget, where’s the breakdown and how can we fix it? Or is ‘customer at the heart of..’ just management rhetoric, a vague notion? Some organisations are already focused on customers and have very good relationships with them. Others are making fundamental shifts in attitude and behaviour, in organisation and in management systems to truly put the customer at the heart of the organization. Some others are not, maybe they don’t need to, at the moment. But what does ‘customers at the heart of the organisation’ actually mean?

 

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What does it take to put the customer at the heart of the organisation? Maybe this is something that some business leaders aspire to, but don’t know what it takes to do it? It’s clearly something that others are able to or are currently trying to do. It makes you wonder if there’s a science, an approach or a way of thinking that can help? Front line staff work with customers every day, they know what customers want, what they need, how they feel. But, does this translate into the ‘corporate conciousness’, is it obvious that the customer is at the heart of the organisation? Does it feel real?

There may be more challenging questions to ask. Is it actually what the organisations wants or needs? Do customers actually value customer intimacy or do they actually want something else? Why would a customer want a close relationships with a company or brand? These are difficult questions that challenge orthodox, popular and fashionable thinking. More than anything these questions challenge organisations to think clearly about what they do, how they do it and the operating models they need to deliver against the promises they make. This doesn’t mean don’t ‘think customer’, it means think very, very deeply about customers and what it means to deliver value to them, what they really want, not what we assume they want, or simply we’d like to sell to them. Rather than some marketing rhetoric, we should be looking for a slightly more sophisticated, refined and meaningful framework that consistently delivers value to customers.

Different competency – different operating model – not obvious

For some organisations the customer truly is at the heart of their organisation, they are ‘customer focused’,  they seek rich conversations and deep connections, and customers know this, they feel it. But, that’s not always what customers actually want. Customers at the heart of the organisation does not always mean intense intimacy or deep relationships. For some customers, maybe more than just a few, this it is not a differentiating feature. Some organisations know their customers, their customers are clearly important to the organisation, but they know that  for some, ‘customer intimacy’ is not the ‘value add’. These organisations may major on other differentiating factors: innovation, social purpose or operational excellence to name a few.

What’s likely is that any relationship is a balancing act, where weighting is placed amongst a few options or ‘brand priorities’. It’s often a question of emphasis: innovation, operational excellence. social purpose and customer intimacy – which one, how much of each one, when and where? It’s about developing a theme, a position a flavour of relationship that’s inclusive for some people, but perhaps not right for others. It’s also about building sustainable propositions that have legitimate value and aren’t just clever marketing ‘cover stories’. Customer value is built, recognised, earnt over time, not fabricated. It’s about building ‘customer memory’, affinity with customer goals and aspirations and in most cases leading customers to a better more fulfilling future.

Perhaps, renewed focus around customer value would help. What is customer value, how can we measure it, develop it, remember it? How can we deliver value to different customers under different circumstances all the time? How many organisations know which operating models and management system support different kinds of customer value? How many organisations know how to align culture and management systems around a more balanced view of ‘customer relationships’? How many organisations have the ability to refine this in real time across multiple channels, products and services? Putting customers at the heart of the organisation cannot be rhetoric, that’s a hollow promise that will, in time, contaminate any brand. The promise has to be real, that means customers can feel it.

There’s always a danger we infuse our ‘customer focus’ with our own perceptions of value, we create a ‘customer at the heart of..’ proposition that’s not really about customer value at all. We can, to some extent counter this by ensuring customers are involved in creating and delivering our vision, our product and services, that they innovate with us and have real input to or strategies. But, it’s up to us to develop effective leadership, culture, management systems and more integrated approaches that ensure we build customer intelligence, we share customer insight and we enable more effective customer dialogue. We need to re-learn how to manage customer value through our organisations and deliver it to customers. We need to sustain customer value throughout our organisation, not let it diminish as it filters through various functions and disciplines to become watered-down and barely differentiated customer benefit. We need new and creative ways to make the ‘voice of the customer’ heard, clearly and consistently. We need new systems, management systems, eco-systems and leadership systems to help make this happen. Perhaps there are few things we could put on the agenda:

  • Understand what customer value is and develop management systems to deliver it
  • Develop our own thought leadership and culture that connects with our customers
  • Create incentives and rewards that help people focus on building and delivering customer value
  • Shift from selling product to delivering customer benefit, invite customers in, co-create and innovate together
  • Develop longer term value propositions for customers
  • Enable collaboration across our organisations to share customer insight
  • Develop more transparent, open systems of communication
  • Implement agile systems and approaches to ensure we can stay connected with customers

So what?

Well, ‘putting the customer at the heart’ of the organisation is just too vague. All organisations think customer to some extent. It’s a question of intensity, relative weighting, and perhaps constantly changing relationships customers feel comfortable with. Perhaps one of the main reasons customer focus ‘gets lost in translation’ is because the operating models, management systems aren’t up to the task, attitudes and behaviours aren’t aligned or customer needs (short and long term) aren’t understood well enough. The thing is, this can be fixed, alignment and understanding can be attained and organisations can manage the levers of customer value effectively, but like everything else we have to work at it. It takes leadership, discipline and time.

Customer value management is a discipline, not a casual activity. It’s a way of thinking, a set of approaches and change management systems that can ensure customers are at the heart of the organisation. There are technologies and processes that can help, information strategies that can provide the right insight, but leadership and culture will always have a pivotal part to play. Customers can be at the heart of any organisation, their needs and aspirations can be met. We can manage subtle differences in relationships, develop appropriate connections. There’s no excuse, organisations don’t need to suffer from ‘customer amnesia’. In fact, some organisations have made strident progress toward truly customer focused visions of the future and have seen the commercial benefits they deserve. Maybe the bottom line is to think about customer value more clearly, more scientifically, more creatively, decide what it really means to customers and the business and then develop effective systems to deliver it. Sounds simple in theory, the challenge is meaningful change and transformation and better understanding of what customer value is and how it can be delivered now and in the future.

“Align everything you say and everything you do to unique propositions that have real meaning for customers and customers will be at the heart of your organisation.”

 

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