Faking Customer Centricity

Customer centricity is a powerful business concept. But that’s not all it is.

Properly done— Pepper and Rogers and One to One are the class act in this arena—it is key to an approach to business that combines social good and corporate success.

Done right, it’s a goal in itself—not a mere tactic for profitability. Profitability emerges as a byproduct, not as an overriding goal. True customer-centricity yields more profit than profit-centricity alone does.

But this view is up against a lot. The broader approach to business is centered on competitive advantage as the goal, and the shareholder stakeholder as the primary beneficiary. And that has a perverse impact on the idea of customer centricity.

Remember 60s radical Angela Davis? She was a student of Herbert Marcuse, a radical philosopher who developed the concept of “repressive tolerance.” Sounds contradictory (he was a Hegelian, for the philosophers in the crowd), but makes good sense (he was also perceptive).

It means, simply, the best way for a majority to neutralize a threatening minority is to develop an attitude of tolerance. That way, the majority system appears to be un-threatened, and the minority to be un-threatening. The status quo is the winner.

While that idea has some limits (it’s hard to tolerate violent terrorists beyond a certain point), it works pretty well in the realm of ideas.

Which is why “customer centricity” is so easily hijacked by the dominant ideology of competitive advantage. The competitive paradigm—our leading view of business today—is repressively tolerant of customer-centricity. The hijacking turns the new idea into merely a tactic to serve the old idea. Customer centricity is neutralized, subsumed into the competitive paradigm.

Some examples:

1. Is it just me, or has the Ritz Carlton recently stepped up its emphasis on employees using the phrase “my pleasure?” Other companies are copying it. If delivered without sincerity, it results in a hollow mockery of the intended customer focus. Delivered too often, even with sincerity, it risks appearing obsequious—an autonomic reaction, not an indication of customer focus, thus highlighting its use as a tactic, not a goal.

2. How about, “your business is very important to us…” It clearly isn’t, otherwise you’d hire someone to answer the phone instead of routinely kicking me to voicemail hell. Which means it’s another faux version of customer focus, using the hollow shell—the words, in this case—of customer centricity, but in service merely to cost-cutting. If you’re going to put me on hold, then at least have the decency to own the decision—don’t lie to me.

3. Or, “your opinion matters to us.” No it doesn’t. If it did, you’d do something more than a simple check-box card in my hotel room. If it actually did matter to you, the desk clerk would act like he or she cared when I made a suggestion. If it did, you’d use it for something more than employee ratings.

4. Or, "I do apologize for that, sir," when the thing being apologized for is either an objectionable corporate policy or a systems screwup, but in any case has nothing to do with the poor agent doing the apologizing.

The language of relationships—feelings, apologies, empathy—has been evident in business lately. It is ostensibly about personal connections, about taking responsibility, and about focusing on the needs and feelings of the customer.

That’s the theory. In practice, it’s often just more slick sloganeering. If a company really wanted to be customer centric, they’d apologize for mistakes they made, and own up to decisions they didn’t intend to change. Imagine hearing this from a company spokesperson:

"This is a result of the policies we follow; occasionally it severely inconveniences someone and it sounds like that’s what happened here. I can promise you I’ll make sure the company is aware of this result so we can work to reduce it in future—but to some extent, that’s the inevitable result of our chosen policy, and it’s intentional. I’m sorry that you’re caught in it, let me do what I can to resolve it for you right now."

That would at least be honest. Alternatively, one could change the policy in question. But for heaven’s sake, don’t lie to us and fake it.

Fake customer-centricity is like counterfeiting. Counterfeiting harms retailers, or wine merchants, or tech manufacturers, or software writers. Fake customer-centricity harms customers. It turns our commercial relationships into low-integrity lying.

We’ve got enough of that already. Insist on the real thing.

Here’s a video clip that says it all.

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