What it means to be a customer centric organization

9 min read
Artwork by Mantraste

You might be thinking, “great, another article about customer centricity. I cannot wait to read it”.

Followed by a robust yawn. Books, blogs, keynotes, consulting practices, technology platforms and toolkits based on customer-centricity surround us, and the content continues to flow.

Why? Because it matters.

And while it may be easy to grasp the concept, it is just darned hard to live, breathe and consistently measure its impact across your business.

I will disclose my bias upfront. The vast majority of my experience comes from working in B2B software and services companies, latterly SaaS, primarily focused on serving regional and global enterprise and mid-enterprise customers.

My obsession with customers is a function of both serving them as well as being a customer myself, having evaluated, negotiated, implemented and managed (and occasionally thrown out) a multitude of solutions across my company’s enterprise architecture — marketing automation, CRM, cloud services, analytics, security, monitoring, etc.

Up to 45 percent of B2B customers report they did not realize the value they were promised by their vendors. Therefore, if you want to avoid this disappointment and eventual churn with your customers, you must actively define and manage your customer experience strategy.

Defining customer centricity – a simple yet effective view

I worked with a CTO a few years ago who was extremely commercial and connected to our customers. He participated in many sales cycles and ongoing quarterly business reviews because he wanted to hear and internalize our customers’ perspectives first-hand so he could positively influence the product roadmap and also drive the right culture and behaviors with our teams.

When referring to how we designed and delivered products to our customers, he consistently used the phrase, “our job is to whole problem solve”. This mindset meant listening to our customers’ needs and challenges and ensuring those were reflected in our ways of working and engaging throughout the customer journey.

I subscribe to this basic definition of customer centricity – solving your customers’ problems in the context of the business value proposition your organization delivers. This implies understanding the challenges and opportunities your customers are facing, where they are in their business cycle, and the critical drivers the solution you offer will enable: growth, internationalization, efficiency, business insight, consolidation — and how that is evolving.

Ranjay Gulati, Harvard Business School professor and author of Reorganize for Resilience, states this way of thinking well in an interview with Harvard Business Review:

“I’m not here to sell what I produce. I’m here to solve my customers’ problem.”

Yet, most of us are often obsessed with selling the product and generating revenue. However, what most people tend to ignore is the fact that if you get the customer experience right in all elements of your business, revenue will come.

And the numbers prove it. McKinsey found that “customer-experience leaders in B2B settings have on average higher margins than their competitors. In cases where companies have undertaken broad transformations of their customer-experience processes, the impact among B2B and B2C players has been similar, with higher client-satisfaction scores, reductions of 10 to 20 percent in cost to serve, revenue growth of 10 to 15 percent, and an increase in employee satisfaction.”

customer-centric team

The essential ingredients: an aligned, informed, and empowered organization

For those of us whose careers have majored in operational and customer experience roles, you may relate to a conversation with your CEO regarding performance metrics and accountability that goes something like, “you own customer success and support, so you own customer satisfaction.” Wrong. Everyone in the business should feel connected to the customer experience across the entire journey. This means looking at how we acquire customers, gather product requirements, deliver the solution, engage with them on an ongoing basis, provide business and performance insight — right down to ensuring their ease of understanding the invoice they receive.

It is not about organizational structure; instead, it is about connecting your employee and customer experience in all aspects of your business and ensuring that your digital strategy supports this alignment, creating a powerful culture that encourages flexibility, innovation, and collaboration at all levels and directions. This culture is about ensuring your people have a meaningful, reciprocal engagement with customers and one another, resulting in better thinking, new ideas and dialogue beyond feature/function into the realm of “what more can I do to solve your problems?”

Organizations that excel in today’s competitive world are the ones that deliver an exceptional, joined-up employee and customer experience. They provide an environment where the right tools, structure and genuine commitment to be flexible and innovate are foundations of the business. They are people-focused and empathetic, internally and externally, and eliminate the constraints of traditional siloed role-based approaches by encouraging a multi-disciplinary team and working group formation and collaboration.

I like the example that Satya Nadella set when he was appointed CEO of Microsoft. He introduced a ‘learn it all culture’ that encouraged employees to explore new ways of working even if the exploration was not successful. Over four years later, the shift in culture has led to a strong upturn in business performance with employees thinking laterally and learning beyond their specific role or function.

customer-centric team

Bringing customer centricity to life – a call to action

Now for the fun part. How do you bring this to life? I spoke about the essential ingredients above, so consider an action plan embracing these characteristics to build on the fundamentals.

1. Start with your own leadership and execution

No lip service, fluff or hyperbole – I am talking about a real strategic direction and execution grit. The tone established by leadership must be aligned, authentic and strong, forming the critical foundation of cascade alignment throughout the business and collaboration across departments and teams. It needs to be data-driven and digitally astute. But what does this mean?

  • Define and relentlessly communicate meaningful cross-functional KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and accountabilities that are continuously shared, understood and embraced across the business. Don’t be afraid to share bad news — it is a call to action your team will respond to positively if given the opportunity.
  • Couple this with a digital strategy that enables an integrated sales-to-service experience for employees, customers and partners, automating, integrating and allowing frictionless end-to-end processes for your internal and external stakeholders.

2. Let’s tackle data and information

What the heck is happening in your business? What are you measuring and discussing daily, weekly, monthly? Does the entire company understand what is important? There are the obvious customer metrics, such as retention, expansion ARR (annual recurring revenue), CLV (customer lifetime value), gross and net churn, NPS (Net Promoter Score), etc., so yes to these.

But what about the spotlight you have shining inside your organization?

  • How much development time are you dedicating to your customer support driven issues — bugs, feature requests and technical debt — that impact your customer experience?
  • Have you established resolution SLAs (Service Level Agreements) between development, support, and success?
  • Are your sales, support and success team members following up in writing to 100% of their prospect and customer discussions? Are they demonstrating their understanding of the customer’s challenges and needs and the actions they will take to address?
  • How happy and engaged is your team? What is their NPS?

3. How is your team feeling (honestly)?

Forbes has referred to employee engagement as “the wonder drug for customer satisfaction”. It may seem like a common-sense correlation, but many companies simply ignore (passively or actively) the critical contribution highly motivated and satisfied employees make in the customer satisfaction equation. I have a simple mantra, “happy people, happy customers.”

So, how do you bring this to life?

  • Hire for skill and stage. You must balance hiring new talent bringing the skills you need now and into the foreseeable future with training and investing in your existing employees. The newbies must embrace their obligation to do and teach (without an arrogant know-it-all vibe).
  • Treat your team with dignity and respect, empower and incent them to internalize and execute your customer-centric vision. If you have hired well and invested meaningfully in your employees, your job is to release and guide this collective power.
  • Bring on the passion! Emotion and engagement are two of the most powerful drivers for your people and customers. Take them seriously, respect them and demonstrate your awareness in how you lead, develop, expand and inspire your team. They will bring this passion to every customer interaction they undertake.

4. Digital doom or distinction?

This topic incites a level of passion in me that is only subordinated to how I feel about the people points. Pay attention to your digital strategy and establish and deliver a clear vision. Successful customer experience leaders and organizations invest more in a technology-enabled customer experience than their peers.

  • Define your enabling systems to support your ways of working and your customer experience.
  • Invest in comprehensively integrating this stack to deliver the end-to-end sales to service alignment coupled with a digital and physical focus that is tracked, assessed and understood.
  • Implement automated, frictionless processes and working practices wherever possible so your teams are able to focus on higher order, valuable work that translates to an amazing employee and customer experience.

Now, back to the start

I hope you are still awake and made it to the end. Customer centricity (focus, passion, obsession and satisfaction) are fundamentals in my day-to-day life, and I hope I shared some practical insights with you. The range of technologies and talent available to us today make exceptional customer experience possible, and it requires leadership to provide the clarity of vision, conviction and commitment to bring it to life.

So, here are a few take aways:

  • Define and bring to life your leadership stance on customer experience
  • Whole problem-solve for your customers
  • Measure and communicate what matters (relentlessly)
  • Get your digital act in order
  • Care for and empower your employees – they are the secret sauce
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