The real journey to making your organisation customer-centric

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Stephen Fortune
Principal Consultant
The Oxford Group
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I am regularly asked what organisations can do to make themselves really customer-centric. Are there any simple steps to follow or policies to enforce?

The answer is often more complex than people expect: customer-centricity needs considerable planning and commitment to be more than a half-hearted attempt to overhaul customer service policies.

People are really good at developing a strategy, launching it and walking away.

So where do you start? I recently enjoyed the company of Philip Watts - a transformational change strategy expert – where we discussed the ways an organisation can become customer-centric. In this series of three articles, I’ll use Phillip’s advice to create the ultimate guide to transforming your business into a customer-centric one.

Gain clarity and make a commitment

Transforming the culture of an organisation can border on the impossible if you are unsure where your company is going and why.

Many of Philip’s workshops begin by posing the question of what a company’s vision is. This gains insight on how the customer fits into the company’s future plans. The participants’ reactions at a recent workshop evidenced this lack of clarity. “I was met with blank faces,” Phillip says. “It was evident to me that none of the people I was talking to - who were relatively senior in the company - were clear on where the company was going and therefore why the company wanted to improve their performance with customers.”

The customer is king, with the power to fire everybody should they choose to take their money elsewhere.

Workshop attendees often assume they will head straight into complex ideas like customer insights, customer value propositions or customer frameworks that can be used to describe offers.

But first, a concrete vision and proper understanding of the customer must be established. By conducting a general discussion first, Philip was able to go back to basics. Who is your customer? Who is your most important customer? Why are they the most important customer? What does that customer expect from you? What is their experience of working with you?

As Phillip says, there is almost a sequential approach to becoming a customer-focused organisation. You start by being very clear on why you’re doing this and then, gradually, by learning more about your customer, you ultimately reach a high level of sophistication.

But how can you be customer-centric while ensuring that you propel your company forward? If care is not taken, customer agenda may not be where you’d take your company. Philip believes that this is why defining a company’s vision is an essential step in the early stages of building a company. There has to be a perfect alignment between each level of leadership on what they want the company to become. Is your company product focused, customer focused or people focused Or perhaps the focus is elsewhere.

But how can you be customer-centric while ensuring that you propel your company forward?

Philip’s industry experience emphasised the difference between these levels of focus. “I spent most of my career in the pharmaceutical industry and the pharmaceutical industry is generally very product focused,” he says. “The industry is good at customer initiatives, but these are about the product and the product is always prioritised above the customer. When it comes down to making a final decision about strategy, there has to be some kind of framework that you can hang your thinking on. Something to say what is most important to you: the needs of the brand or the specific needs of the customer.”

I recently talked to a Walmart employee about their unfaltering customer focus. For them, the customer is their king, with the power to fire everybody should they choose to take their money elsewhere. Their philosophy is all about the customer.

Why are you doing this?

Having a strong reason for becoming customer-centric is essential to create real drive and commitment to transformation. Since Philip had previously been at the helm of a new customer marketing department, I asked him what would prompt a company to embrace a new working culture.

For him, the company’s traditional approach needed to be challenged because it was no longer meeting strategic objectives. The company was starting to get negative feedback from both its customers and employees. As he puts it, “it wasn’t feeling good for our customers and it wasn’t feeling good for our people”. So, the mantra became to change the way that the company thought and acted towards their customers so that the customers could change the way they thought and acted towards the company.

Reasons vary for why companies embark on a change, but most come back to either increasing profitability and long-term success, or changing something that wasn’t working the way it should. Carefully think about why you’re making a change: changing because you feel it’s important to keep up with industry competition may go against the grain of your company’s vision and philosophy.

Can you make the commitment?

A running theme of my interview with Philip was the need for organisations to commit to maintaining a customer-centric culture from the outset. If you truly want to become customer-centric, it’s important that it becomes the central strategy of the company. “One of the things I’ve become increasingly aware of,” Phillip says, “is a lot of people are really good at developing a strategy, launching it and walking away.”

Reasons vary for why companies embark on a change, but most come back to either increasing profitability and long-term success, or changing something that wasn’t working the way it should.

Philip defines the phenomenon as ‘initiavitis’ and believes it is caused by senior leaders trying to juggle too many initiatives. The ‘launch and leave’ tendency is scarily common. Several years ago, a large pharmaceutical organisation I worked for introduced a customer relationship management program. In spite of the considerable financial and human resources committed to the cause, 12 months later only around 20 to 30 percent of personnel were adhering to it. I didn’t hear the program talked about for another 18 months.

As well as a commitment to following up with customer-centric business strategies on a regular basis, Philip suggests that an understanding of responsibility and time constraints is essential. He made sure to be particularly careful when launching initiatives in smaller countries: all the work would fall on the shoulders of one person.”

Once the foundations of commitment and clarity have been laid, we can start to look at the definition of customer-centric and how insight can power your business strategy.

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