Why you (probably) aren’t customer-centric


If you have ‘customer-centric’ on your buzzword bingo card at any retail conference, you’re a sure winner. It’s the catch phrase. We’re all customer-centric, right?  Right??? I would argue that most of us are a long way from being customer-centric.  We have painted this grotesque caricature of our customers based on non-representative anecdotes and flimsy data without context, while abandoning basic empathy. We talk about the behaviour our customers have while ignoring that w

ng that we rarely have those same behaviours. Day to day, we cherry pick little anecdotes (‘a customer commented that on Instagram!’) that support our views, preferring simple lies over complex truths. 

Caricatures tend to focus simplistically on a few features, but real people are far more nuanced. Like the rock turned over to reveal a mess of bugs, looking at real customers makes the world more complex. That complexity was always there, we just see it now. And most importantly, we now have the chance to meet their real needs. 

Customer myths

Here are some ‘customer-centric’ beliefs I see all the time. Warning: I’m challenging a few sacred cows here, so get out your pitchforks. 

Customers see your ad and then buy, and there’s a single ad responsible for each sale. I can tell which ad led to me buying my last can of Coke, can’t you? Oh, I also always complete my purchase within 30 days of clicking – there’s never any long-term consideration. Customers clearly remember your brand and articulate your many messages. No need to simplify, or build long-term memory structures. They’ll remember them all, like you have for thousands of brands. And if you change your positioning? Send an email to everyone. Your brand is central in their life, so they pay attention. There’s no need to understand the emotional drivers behind their purchases. Their behaviour is predictable and easily modelled. No need to ever talk to them. We’re lucky human purchasing decisions are 100 per cent rational.Customers are always in need of your product, and will come back repeatedly. They haven’t bought in 90 days? They are defecting. It’s not that they are happy and don’t need another one or – horror of horrors – there are several retailers they buy from. A coupon for 10 per cent off will persuade their traitorous dark soul. Like you, they buy exclusively from one retailer.When they visit your website, they read all the text in full and study it carefully. And they’ll hunt through multiple pages on your website to find the information they need to make a purchase. As long as the information is somewhere, it’s fine. Customers love giving you their data. Filling in a preference centre to maybe get slightly more relevant emails? No problem. Like you, whenever their preferences change, updating preference centres is their top priority. 

How to become customer-centric

Customer-centricity starts with customer understanding. 

People make decisions emotionally and justify them rationally. Ever had a friend (or maybe even yourself) refer to their new designer handbag as “an investment”? So why do we spend so much time focusing on rational insights? What people say (rational) and what they do (emotional) are poorly correlated. 

This is a challenge of being data driven. We reduce our customers to numbers and simple bar graphs, but miss complexity and motivation – we’re obsessed with the ‘what’ while ignoring the more important ‘why’. Understanding the motivations driving purchases can lead directly to revenue-positive insights. Surveys generally pick up only the rational. What response do you think your friend would give in a survey on why they bought that designer handbag? Do you really think that’s the real reason?

There’s a wide range of research techniques, and the right one is very content dependent. But, there’s no single tool, no ‘let’s do this survey and then we understand our customers and can move on’. Customer understanding, and then customer-centricity, is a journey, not a destination. One thing that’s important and often missed is to really understand the question you want answered. People often skip this, get little value, and it’s parked in a folder gathering dust. Even more common is looking at non-representative data. Social comments and CX feedback, while valid insights, probably don’t reflect the bulk of your customers. The silent majority is real.

What I do find most helpful is the literal voice of the customer. Playing for a CEO the recording of a customer’s actual voice when they’re being frustrated in a real buying situation is 10 times more powerful than a thousand persuasive PowerPoint slides. 

I once read a CV where one of the person’s achievements was “made team customer-centric”. Wow, hired. None of us are fully customer centric – it’s a spectrum – let’s accept there’s a lot more we can do. My favourite saying has long been “don’t make our problem our customer’s problem”. Understanding the real customer, and solving their real problems, leads to real revenue.


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