customers firstIn all my years of meeting about customer responsibilities, I have never once been in the same room both with those who actually lead the move to customer centricity and with the people that prevent the move to customer centricity. There are two reasons for this: first, organizations don’t think much about how the business delivers customer experience and therefore how the leaders responsible for each function ought to be involved. Second, personal ownership for customer experience is devilishly difficult to define for non-customer facing functions, and not exactly a coveted designation.

Whatever way your company defines position power and influence, it is the first thing you need to figure out — and the answer is not necessarily a regurgitation of the org chart. Certainly, the CEO and his/her team must ultimately understand and agree with the customer centricity route, but I would be pleasantly surprised if every one of them starts out that way. The reality is many a senior leader has agreed to put customers at the heart of the firm without understanding what that really means. Just because you’re senior doesn’t mean you are immune to humouring your boss or touting the party line. There is a treasure trove of influencers and activists in the layers below the big players that will be far more valuable to the cause, and the senior execs have every right to expect that kind of initiative from their people.

Leaders require 4 capabilities to move their company to customer centricity:

1. Understand the Brutal Facts.
Brutal facts are only available from two sources: customers and the people who serve customers. Brutal facts are more than numbers — because without context, feedback, and actual behaviour, you’re flying with a faulty dashboard. Reported activity is mighty seductive, but your current data probably includes market research and satisfaction surveys and performance metrics without much cross-tabulation. Beware which numbers are not reported because they are not good, and which numbers actually matter to customers. Brutal facts include what customers actually say, not what we want to hear.

2. Admit the Behaviours that Produced the Brutal Facts.
A former colleague complimented my role in getting our company to put customers first, saying previous efforts hadn’t worked. I knew the concept was not new, and I knew people closest to customers knew what needed to change, so I asked him why the first 7 times failed. He said, “We had other priorities.” I said “What were the other priorities?” He said: “You know, budget cuts, headcount constraints, competitive pressures, stuff like that.” I wanted to say, “Putting aside customers in favour of a budget challenge is like putting your kids in the basement for two years while you pay off your mortgage.” But I didn’t. I should have thanked him for illuminating a very common behaviour problem: companies that really don’t grasp that ignoring customers (or your children) is not an option. You end up damaging the very reason you have a business (or a mortgage) in the first place. Enough said.

3. Evaluate the Entire Business through the Lens of Customer Centricity.
I would rather use another phrase as this one has been abused, but if we continue the family analogy, centricity would be organizing life around family. Putting customers first is the same kind of commitment, and half-measures don’t work, if at all, certainty not forever. Spending the education fund on back taxes or an unaffordable house seems inconsistent with putting kids’ long term well-being and obligations first. Cutting the operating costs of the places where customers connect with the business (think call centres), without investing in the technology, training and policies that help reduce calls, sounds like magical thinking to me. By identifying what each function does in the business to support customer outcomes (and every function does have an impact on customers directly or indirectly — if you find any that don’t, you’ve found unnecessary costs), taking a holistic approach to investments, processes and policies, and settling in for the long-term, you can run a business around customers. Rule One: Do. Not. Exempt. Anyone.

4. Make Customer Centricity a Team Sport
I suppose team sport is as good a definition of culture as there is, and far easier to understand than the academic ones. The younger me was highly skeptical of the merits of culture, and I blush to think how recently I have seen the light. Culture really does eat strategy for breakfast, and you can successfully change what is on the menu. There are several nuances to this, of course, but leaders have to understand the business well enough (major processes broadly, and their function deeply) to protect customers from myopic decisions that have unintended consequences .Budgets, egos and protectionist behaviours are the enemies of team sport. That is why intact teams play better together than all-star teams, despite the best talent money can buy and world-class expertise, and support on the sidelines. Same goes for customer centricity, the definition of which goes like this: everyone needs to figure the exact way in which their work affects customers, and in doing so, which functions, departments, teams and colleagues they are in service to, and vice versa. It’s six degrees of separation without Kevin Bacon (unless you work with him).

Here is what’s true in my 31 years in business: there is no organizational, title, or position solution to putting customers first; there is only ensuring everyone accepts personal responsibility for customer centricity. Not general responsibility (too flaky), rather, specific responsibility, without which, all you have is diffused responsibility. Diffused responsibility is far worse than no responsibility, and probably worse than whatever you have now. Once your company accepts this truth, gears up for big bang, and begins to address the challenges in every area of the business (no exceptions), making sure all HR policies support the approach, true customer centric culture will be in your grasp.

If not you, who?

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