You’ll never be truly customer-centric until you love your customers

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

Our Associate Simon Lidington tells us why love is at the heart of customer loyalty, and sets out ten things you can do to become more customer-centric

Over the last 20 years it is true that most businesses have become more customer-focused. But for most it has been the same focus that the flat earthers had on the sun: aware that it rises every day and sets every evening, but blind to the idea that their world revolves around it. Being customer-focused is a world-view away from being customer-centric.

Does the customer stand in the middle of your world, or at the end of a supply chain? Do you see your job as one of persuading them to buy your brand, or one of matching their needs, wants and expectations? Do you know what value you give to customers or what value they bring to you?

The truth is, your brand fits into people’s lives; or it doesn’t fit.

Think of the customer. The customer does not live in a world of sales, marketing, operations or customer care. Customers don’t say ‘I’m just popping down the road to buy some customer care’. People don’t think like that. They don’t see the world in a disaggregated, departmental way. Now that’s a problem. If you think in silos and customers don’t, how will you ever understand them and develop a way of thinking that leads you to operating in a customer-centric way?

The key to understanding all of this lies in the concept of Customer Value. Customer value is not the same as value for money, nor is it one way. It’s about the value you provide for customers and the value you get from customers. And each is dependent on the other. The action is in the interaction.

This implies that customers want interaction, because they want to consume, to be customers, to buy, to own, but more than anything, to experience something with integrity, authenticity, humanity and love. Yes, love. Oh dear! Sounds pretty namby pamby, almost phony, doesn’t it. We don’t like thinking about it. But we want customers to love us, and be loyal to us, and can we really expect one-way love to work?

Love blossoms when people put their heart into a relationship and find that it’s reciprocated. Delivering a fantastic customer experience is not just a matter of getting the processes right, it’s about people behaving empathetically, thinking of others, caring about every aspect of the experience. This marriage of rational left-brain and emotional right-brain is crucial to making sure that customers get what they need and feel great about the way it is delivered. It’s the combination that creates undying loyalty to an organisation or brand.

But, when you think of customer loyalty what do you really mean? Do you mean how often customers buy your products and services again? Or do you mean how emotionally engaged with your brand they are? Because the difference is huge. Thinking only of repeat purchase can lead you down the road of focusing on retention rather than loyalty.

Retention literally means ‘keeping hold of’. In other words it’s about stopping people from leaving. There are many ways of doing this that do not involve increasing loyalty: you can make the deal so attractive that they have to stay; you can bribe them with goodies; you can lock them into a punitive finance regime; you can give them loyalty cards. But none of it necessarily makes them more loyal to you. Maybe it’s a case of focusing on the wrong end of the telescope again.

Perhaps if you were to think in a customer-centric way you’d come to the view that customers’ loyalty to your brand isn’t the point. It’s your loyalty to them that really matters. How loyal are you to your customers? Do you cherish them? Do you stick with them through thick and thin? Do you find out how they are (not how satisfied they are)? Do you help them when they didn’t expect you to? Do you help them even when they are being unreasonable? All of these things you would do for a real friend. Is there something to be learned about loyalty from friendship? In other words, love.

But, none of this just happens by magic. You need to make it happen. How? Here are ten things you can do to become customer-centric:

  1. Develop a resolve to deliver a brilliant customer experience – with love. Customers are becoming more powerful than you are. Becoming customer-centric requires you to treat the customer experience as the most valuable brand asset you have. You can only do this by developing a mind-set and a culture that places customers at the heart of your business, and recognises that as you maximise your value to them, they will maximise their value to you. This is neither the same as acknowledging that they exist, nor as barely recognising that they are somehow important to you.

  2. Use market research wisely to help you, your management team, and the people who interact with customers, actually learn from customers. Your brand’s ability to become sustainable depends on your people’s ability to make decisions that enhance its position in customers’ lives. They will not be able to do that simply through listening, second or third hand, to disaggregated and reductive pieces of research designed to ape scientific testing procedures.

  3. Never believe that you can manage customers. They are individuals, they don’t like being managed by brands. They want to manage themselves.

  4. Think of your brand only in the real context of its purchase, consumption, usage and ownership. Do not rely on inside-out models. Develop an outside-in way of looking at things. How people really live, buy, consume, use and own will teach you more about becoming sustainable than any amount of MBA models.

  5. Understanding the customer is like understanding life. Experiment with different ways of approaching the brand; co-opt customers into the process of understanding; don’t look at them as aliens, see them as part of your family; don’t view them as laboratory rats, whose behaviour you are seeking to modify, see them as intelligent, independent, powerful - they will adopt or reject you, see through you, buy you for all the reasons you hadn’t though of, in fact, buy whatever they damn well want. So, develop your thinking about the brand with customers; regard it as a process of continuous learning, change, development; believe that this process will change the way you think: fundamentally and disconcertingly. Remember, you are not in control - customers are.

  6. Connect. Only connect. Treat your brand as indivisible. Adam Smith is not your friend here. Dividing up the functions that enable you to manage a brand must not lead to divided thinking. Joined-up thinking is key. Encourage your people to think together not to just work alongside each other. And use the customer as the focal point: if the customer is at the centre, then the customer is the thread that should link your people’s thoughts, ideas and actions.

  7. Have a qualitative mindset. This is not to say that the quantitative is of no use. It is to say that the quest to reduce the complexities of life to a simple set of numbers can lead to superficial, reductive, and often wayward thinking. Qualitative means the quality in something. Use open methods to lead, discuss, investigate and learn about qualities. Do not regard testing as your default method. It’s no good asking consumers what they intend to do – they don’t know. If you’ve done the work to understand their lives properly, you’ll know what’s right and what will fit into their lives.

  8. Believe that real customer relationships are central to delivering a real customer experience. They are too important to think you can manage them without the agreement and involvement of each customer in their relationship. You can’t have bulk relationships

  9. Believe in people. People are more important than processes and procedures which are often the focus of attention because we underestimate the potential in our people. Great process can never make up for mediocre people. On the other hand great people can make up for lousy processes. But the combination of great processes and great people is what defines a brilliant customer experience.

  10. Develop ways of understanding and defining the ideal customer experience you want your organisation to deliver to your customers – and then set to work on improving it for ever

But most of all…love your customers.

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