It’s a key challenge for business in 2015 and beyond: being customer centric. Almost all of our clients are talking about it and asking us for a solution. They ask us: “Can you help us design and implement a program so we become a customer centric organisation?”

Here at we are driven by helping organisations be the best they can be, so working on customer centricity could be right up our alley. But it isn’t. Why not, I hear you ask. Well, because we don’t believe in it. We would not be doing the right thing by our clients if we make them believe we can help them become customer centric. Because customer centric organisations don’t exist.

We can share numerous stories about clients that have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on programs that eventually didn’t meet their goals. The reason?

1) They made everyone focus on the customer. And when people didn’t have an external customer, they had to focus on the internal customer. This would complicate the approach, dilute the messages and finally lead to an internal oriented rather than an external oriented organisation.

2) They launched ‘a program’. The nature of a program is that it’s finite. It has an end date. The employees get the ‘are we there yet?’ syndrome and focus on a certain goal, rather than the different ways of working that are required. And when ‘the goal’ is met, they go back to normal.

3) The concept itself is flawed. There is no such thing as customer centricity, because you will always have a commercial reality to take into account. Balancing the customer, your business needs and the needs of your people means you can’t be customer centric. Per definition.

So now what?

We work with our clients to make them customer-aware and self-aware. Being customer-aware is about knowing the answer to the question “why do/would your customers buy from you rather than from your competitors?” Being self-aware is about understanding what it is that you’re good at, or should be good at, to ensure your clients keep buying from you. It’s about answering the most fundamental question around your business: “what does is actually mean if we were to change our way of working and what we offer?” More often than not, our clients have not answered that one fundamental question. Along the way of their ‘customer centricity program’ they find out that at the most senior levels in the organisation there is no alignment about the consequences they are willing and able to take. And then senior leaders are being replaced, new programs are being started and new consultants are brought in.

Those organisations that are able to continuously stretch themselves in terms of customer awareness and self-awareness will stay relevant for the future. We can help you become such an organisation. Not a customer centric organisation if that’s what you want, please reach out to someone else. We believe customer centricity is a mirage.

7 steps to customer awareness

  1. Ask the tough questions (see case study).
  2. Change should be uncomfortable so be prepared to face conflict.
  3. Be honest about your own agenda and needs.
  4. Define your organisation’s purpose through the client’s lens.
  5. Take risks, acknowledge the consequences and follow through.
  6. Don’t set an end date – instead, define indicators for progress and communicate and measure these.
  7. Customer awareness balanced with self-awareness is a fluid state getting the balance right without it becoming a see-saw is the state you want to aim for but it will never be a static state. Be prepared to ‘wiggle’. 

Customer awareness model

Journey to self-awareness

A global bank was hit hard by the GFC and was forced by the regulator to become customer centric. To make that happen, they launched a customer centricity program and set KPI’s for all units. As the regulator didn’t believe clients could be the judge of good service (as we know, financial products can be very complex and clients only see the results of what they bought years after they signed a contract), the measure for customer centricity had to be an internal, behavioural one. The thinking behind it is if we change our behaviour, we will change our output.

However, the launch of the program and setting of KPI’s only reinforced ‘old’ behaviours: internal competitiveness, wanting to outperform other units, a focus on the (internal) numbers rather than the (external) customer and a goal on meeting the set target after 3 years. Luckily, after the first year, with some strong feedback from , the Executive Team realised this program was flawed. They fell into the trap of choosing a program that looked ‘easy’ and ‘doable’ as all bankers understand the concept of KPI’s. Their self-awareness hadn’t been strong enough to realise the program would reinforce old behaviour.

The Executive Team sat together and started to answer the real questions:

  • What does it actually mean if we focus on the customer?
  • What does it require us to do as Executives?
  • What is the role-modelling behaviour that goes with that?
  • What do we need to recognise and reward people for?
  • Which processes and procedures do we have to change?
  • Who do we have to promote to key roles to show that we are serious about this initiative?
  • What products and services would we have to offer and which would we have to cancel, regardless of profitability?

Those were tough discussions and required the team to step away from personal agendas and most of all trust each other for having the right intentions. The trust part was the hardest. The members of the team were ambitious and the reasons they started their careers at the bank, (for most more than 30 years ago), were not necessarily in line with the new purpose of the bank. As a result, two executives stepped down and made space for new, different leaders. With the new team, real dilemmas were faced and dealt with and real change was made. Regulators are now happy with the progress the bank is making, customers are knocking on the door, employee engagement is higher than ever and share price is up. It took both self awareness and customer awareness for the bank to see a real change in results.

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About Contributor

Anita is a Senior Client Partner and Head of Korn Ferry’s Assessment & Succession practice, Australasia. She works directly with CEOs, CEO successors and top teams and also advises organisations on broader leadership development and talent strategies. Anita’s areas of passion include CEO and senior leadership development and the development of talent in Asia.

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