Amazon aspires to be “Earth's most customer-centric company.” Customer focus abounds in mission statements. Yet the brands we most admire are much more than customer-led. People never wanted to use finger gestures on black glass sheets before Apple suggested it, or to sit among strangers until the green siren invited them into the coffee shop.
Being customer-centric once meant doing things for the sake of customers, rather than for the convenience of the provider: A bank opening extra teller positions at lunchtime to meet demand, instead of closing them so tellers could eat lunch. But by that measure, any successful company is already customer-centric. The goalposts have clearly moved.
The natural response has been for brands to try to raise their game, to be more agile and responsive. But that has been a recipe for repeating cycles of increasing investment and complexity. Keeping up with the pack in this way is essential; but getting ahead is extremely difficult. Brands need a way of working smarter, not harder.
Delighting consumers is more about brand-led innovation than following customer demands
The key to the new customer-centric is hidden in the widely used Net Promoter Score (NPS) metric. NPS recognized the different dynamics of the promoters who advocate for your brand and the detractors who complain about it. The operational improvements you take to satisfy customers and reduce detractors often won’t increase the promoters.
To work on NPS from both ends, you need a strategy to increase promoters, as well as the operational efforts to reduce detractors. That’s the new customer-centric agenda; and it’s about more than “fixing the basics” and responding to customers. It’s about designing signature experiences that not only work brilliantly for the customer, but also bring out what makes your brand special.
Why did Virgin Atlantic put its signature bar in the upper-class cabin? Not because customers asked for one. Why get up when they will bring a drink to your seat? It built the bar because the company had made the effort to build a great cabin crew, and realized that customers didn't get a chance to talk to them. The bar provides that opportunity, which customers have been keen to take up ever since. Virgin’s Upper Class Wing at Heathrow builds on the same idea. It’s more than a curbside check-in -- it’s an orchestrated entrance in which you are received, and led, by an airline host.
Both are terrific for the customer not just as good experiences in themselves, but also as amplifiers of what the airline does best.
And while every brand is different, there are common threads that can lead us to a new definition of customer-centricity, which is about balancing both customer and company agendas. Three areas are key:
1. Customer needs
What do your customers value and respond to? Are you helping them navigate the hassles they face today, and also fulfilling their higher-order needs.
2. Brand story
What do you want your brand to be known for? What makes it authentic? What does it want to be and do?
3. Operational advantage
What is your company inherently good at? How does it make money differently than its peers?
Being customer-centric requires making the connection between all three, which is usually a cross-functional challenge -- and often cross-cultural as well. To create an experience that works as a whole, companies need to establish guiding principles that inform each of the individual design decisions. This isn’t about scripting; it isn’t even about orchestrating, since nobody typically has the authority to be the conductor. It’s about influencing: Inspiring those charged with creating each part of the experience -- from product developers to the front line -- with a common set of ideas, and enabling them to express those ideas in everything they do.
The best part is that embracing guiding principles can be surprisingly liberating. It’s a customer-centric agenda that allows you to be yourself, to influence how customers think and act, and to play to the specific strengths of your business. In human terms, customer-centricity is about not being arrogant and selfish, and the point is not to be servile, but to be yourself. For some brands, that means being charming or witty; for others, caring and compassionate. The right answer is driven by your brand personality, as well as your operations.