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.

5 replies
  1. An ex-colleague
    An ex-colleague says:

    I enjoyed this but I wonder, based on my experience, whether you have missed a crucial point. In my talk on why management in the Caribbean is so bad I talk of three paradigm shifts that the Caribbean has to make:

    • Switching from administering to managing (you may remember Ted Levitt’s line about administering is doing something right and managing is doing the right thing)
    • The external context – accepting that business must be run for the convenience of the customer rather than for the convenience of the corporation (and incidentally noting that size of customer service training bears no resemblance to the quality of customer service);
    • The internal context – essentially arguing that a theory X environment just doesn’t get the job done.

    I argue that in many ways these are interrelated in that if the employees are not treated right and not made to believe that they are a crucial factor in the customer experience it’s almost impossible not to mention unnatural for them to be able to give good service and argue that moving from Y > X is a precursor to being competitive.

    Just a thought.

  2. jen_chan, writer MemberSpeed.com
    jen_chan, writer MemberSpeed.com says:

    I think customers can tell, to an extent, when they are being offered genuine hospitality. It is when a problem arises though, that allows them to really see just how customer centric a certain organization or company really is. You’re right in identifying those recorded messages and those opinion cards. They are actually pretty annoying and I personally consider them minus points. Face to face sincerity is still the best.

  3. Shubhadeep B.
    Shubhadeep B. says:

    There is no denying that faking is not good in the long term. Should be avoided at all costs!

    But considering that customer centricity is really a way of life – not just an initiative – moving from not being customer centric to becoming customer centric is a culture change. We all know how easy these changes are!! 

    I believe some of the practices mentioned in this write up / comments could be the first few steps in the journey to customer centricity. These could be the quick wins that are so essential to keep the momentum up on a long term change. And getting these smalls things right would be stepping stones to getting the cultural aspects in place over the long term.

    Just maybe the attempts of organizations mentioned need some lauding to nudge them in the right direction?

  4. Mbakisi Vusumuzi Lesetedi
    Mbakisi Vusumuzi Lesetedi says:

    The telephone was created for CONVENIENCE. But today, most corporations use it as a tool to FRUSTRATE customers! They do not answer the telephone to the extent that a customer, out of frustration, must drive througth congested roads to make a booking or check if something has arrived. Here, the phone is a LIABILITY to the company! The telephone only becomes a BENEFIT if the company makes a conscious decision to answer the telephone and conform to other telephone mannerism standards generally accepted by the customer.


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