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The missing heart of customer-centricity

Customer-centricity is the marketing buzzword of the moment. And rightly so, since people are beginning to demand more personal and unique experiences from the brands they use and interact with. Not only that, there’s been a wave of thought recently that the Western world has reached “peak stuff”. Amidst the chaos of a saturated market, brands need to provide an authentic service to their customers if they want to stand out.

The term ‘customer-centricity’ signals a cultural shift in how brands approach customer interactions, largely in response to people’s changing expectations. We’ve seen the marketing world change its perspective as it moves away from traditional customer service (dominated by wishes to “have a nice day”) and into an all-encompassing brand experience.

But empathy goes hand in hand with customer-centricity, and in this respect we’re failing. To be customer-centric we must truly understand who our customers are. This needs to go deeper than surface demographics and into their underlying emotional drivers – what motivates them, what brings them joy, what troubles keep them up at night, what benefits do they seek from the products they buy? However, more often than not brands neglect to make this connection.

This lack of empathy and understanding is at the heart of why so many companies fail to achieve their goal of being customer-centric – they may shift their thinking, but not their approach.

Brands often fail to be genuinely curious about their customers. They see them as obstacles along a journey map that have to be appeased or pandered to. They create strategies to meet customers’ needs at various touchpoints along the company’s operationally structured journey. People are labeled and referred to as consumers as though that’s all they do – forgetting their busy and complex lives away from their purchasing decisions. They are treated as a ‘claimant’ a ‘low value contract’, a ‘poor credit rating customer’, a ‘lapsed buyer’, a ‘target upsell’, a ‘budget shopper’ or an ‘HVC’.

While perhaps operationally effective, this type of language has an impact on the internal culture of companies and the way employees behave towards each other and toward customers. Perhaps even the term ‘customer-centric’ is part of the problem – it doesn’t suggest empathy, curiosity or interest. Instead it feels more like a business goal, focusing on customers as something the company can extract maximum value from. It’s like bringing the customer into the heart of the business but forgetting about the heart bit – the genuine care.

Internal company culture translates directly into how people experience a brand, especially in service industries. In a culture where prescriptive scripts, checklists and targets are the tools, and sticks and carrots are used to drive scores, it’s unlikely a spirit of empathy will thrive. Nor is there any room for curiosity and interest. Ultimately, this has a negative effect on the overall brand experience.

Personas are a common mechanism these days for bringing customers to life in a business. But a persona that is a cardboard stereotype that directs staff to apply specific sales or customer enquiry strategies simply reinforces the separation of the business from the real lives of its customers. Having a true understanding of your customers, as people above all else, enables a flexibility in brand experience that is currently missing.

I read an article recently about how an elderly man in an airline’s economy class was denied a glass of water by the stewardess because “we don’t serve drinks in economy until after take-off”. Meanwhile she was serving champagne to business class passengers just one row in front of him. One of the business class passengers left his seat and got a glass of water from the galley, unabashed by the glare of the stewardess, and handed it to the elderly gentleman to be received by claps and cheers from nearby passengers. There was clearly more empathy customer-to-customer (or human to human) than there was company-to-customer. And I would bet that the airline claims to have a customer-centric strategy.

This is a prime example of where a little bit of empathy and genuine care on the part of the company would go a long way. Companies that demonstrate empathy internally and externally earn trust, and that’s a rare commodity these days with global measures of trust plummeting. Brands need to be thinking about what they can do to make people feel better and address their problems – with genuine care (because fake authenticity is obvious from a mile away).

There’s a common misconception in the marketing industry that a customer-centric approach is simply about looking at what you do and seeing how you can make it better for your customers. It is more than that – to put the heart into customer-centricity requires a total paradigm shift that can only be achieved by truly, genuinely walking in the customer’s shoes, and looking at how you can improve the total experience (not just a part of it). 

Colleen Ryan is head of strategy at TRA.
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