One of my favorite commercials of all time is from United Airlines. In this powerful, one-minute segment, a CEO is in a conference room with all his managers. He informs them that their oldest customer just fired them because the customer felt he didn’t know them anymore. “Things have to change,” the CEO says. “We can’t hide on the phone any longer. We are going to go see every customer we have.” He then hands out United Airline tickets for the management team to visit over 200 cities beginning the same day.
This is a wonderful vignette around the power of a customer-centric strategy and how to incorporate it into the DNA of a company. This commercial was shot in 1990 during a wave of discussion and research around the value of a customer-centric strategy. From a business perspective, analysts such as Don Pepper and Martha Rogers were conducting research into customer-led strategies. Authors Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersma published “The Discipline of Market Leaders.” In academic research, models for defining and measuring customer focus (MKTOR) and determining the value of such a strategy to businesses were also being deeply explored.
The customer is in firm control
The net is we’ve known and been clear about the value of a customer-centric strategy since the 1990s. We have evidence and case studies that show results of a customer-centric approach include higher margins, higher client satisfaction scores, reductions in cost to serve, improved revenue growth, and an increase in employee satisfaction.
What has changed since the 1990s is the how much power and control the customer now has in the digital age. The pressure from customers being in firm control of their buying process is finally affecting the adoption of customer-centric strategies by B2B firms. Whether B2B firms lost or never had customer focus, it is becoming apparent that a customer-centric strategy is now required to win. Pivoting from a product-centric or operational-centric strategy to a customer-centric strategy pays off.
While there is a lot of excitement around the return to customer-focus, there are unique challenges to changing company DNA to be reflective of a customer-centered pivot. Three main challenges include leadership, defining customer ownership, and how marketing uses technology.
In practical terms, customer focus must be pervasive and measured to have the desired effect. It starts with the CEO and the executive team and trickles down to every person in the company. Customer focus must move from “talk” to “walk,” and having KPIs and MBOs for every part of the company associated to customer delight are ways to measure adoption. It’s not possible to transform into a customer-centric organization without belief and behavior starting at the top and cascading to every part of the organization. Just like the CEO in the United Airlines commercial. His flight was to go see the customer who fired them.
Gut Check: Are the behaviors of your company’s executives indicative of a customer-focus?
Who owns the customer?
Coming to terms with “who owns the customer” is a battle in many companies. In companies that are sales led (like many B2B companies), the sales organization often takes great exception to marketing telling them about the customer. The sales organization has always had firsthand and often the only relevant knowledge about the customer. Those days are gone. Marketing now has the most knowledge about the customer through millions of digital interactions. Marketing takes a leadership role in understanding customers as it acquires more knowledge about them and is instrumental in creating customer engagement throughout the entire life cycle. In this scenario, marketing works with every part of the company that touches the customer to create one view of each customer and to create a flawless customer experience.
Gut Check: Do you have a defined and agreed upon customer life cycle map in which each part of the organization understands its role and all actions are orchestrated to create a flawless experience for the customer?
Technology as the enabler
Technology is at the center of operationalizing a customer centric strategy. It is the enabler for consumer and customer control of the buying journey. It is creating the pressure to pivot to a customer-centric strategy. And, it is the answer to operationalizing a customer-centric strategy. In this technology-rich environment, the marketing operations group has emerged to use technology and data to detail and provide relevant customer insights to the CMO and to the organization. In large part, it is the work of the marketing operations group that allows marketing to be the “expert” on the customer.
Gut Check: Is your marketing operations function customer-driven and do it provide key customer insights for organizational decision making?
I most often see companies tackle CX in silos and with disparate processes and technologies. I also see this same scenario within marketing departments. Once they begin these one-off projects, they begin to claim they are now customer-centric.
Nothing could be further from the truth. To integrate CX into the DNA of a company requires belief and action from the top that trickles down to every person in the organization. It requires some tough talks between customer-facing teams such as marketing, sales, and customer service around who owns the customer—and the answer should be: We all do.
Finally, it requires a customer-centric marketing operations group that is customer-focused and proves it by sharing customer data and insights for improved organizational decision making.