The struggles of influencing a customer-centric business culture

July 2022

Over the last few months and motivated by a number of factors which include trying to help clients minimise the negative impact of the current and somewhat dire economic climate, I’ve been on something of a mission to get minds focused on all-things customer-centricity.

Before going too much further, let’s be clear on what being customer-centric is really about: It’s essentially a business culture which, as the name suggests, puts the customer at the heart of the thinking – and that’s everyone from the CEO down to the receptionist. A customer-centric culture helps a company succeed in the long-term because positive brand reputation is so hugely influenced by it. You could also compare it to companies which have more of a sales-centric culture, which is largely focused on the short-term and will put immediate profit over customer experience – and in so doing undermines the likelihood of long term success and even survival.

I currently have four retained clients, with one of these being very customer-centric, one fairly customer-centric, one which isn’t too bad but could do a whole lot better, and one which absolutely isn’t – and now has a fairly serious brand reputation issue as a result.

Of course promoting a culture of customer-centricity isn’t something which a brand and marketing consultant like me should necessarily be taking the lead on, but in the absence of anyone else being in a position to do so – or, probably more to the point, motivated to do so – for the clients I currently work with, then I find myself almost instinctively taking it on. And anyway, to a large extent the head of marketing in any company should arguably be the voice of the customer.
On a personal level and picking up the point above about almost instinctively wanting to drive customer-centric culture, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve always had this sort of mind-set throughout my working life. In fact, when I started out in retail in-store marketing some 48 years ago (a scary length of time I can assure you), part of the appeal of retail was simply around the pleasure that came from making someone happy.

I’ve also been prompted to make customer-centricity the subject of this blog not just by my current clients, but also by the frustrating stance of a local retailer that my wife and I spend an almost obscene amount of money with. This retailer is where my wife buys supplies for her ponies (mainly feed and bedding) and I buy bird food and also fuel for my stove. I’d guess that our average monthly spend is around £750 (ponies are an expensive hobby), so you might think that warrants a very pleasurable customer experience. But, alas, it doesn’t, because although the owners run a very tight ship with system and process and its heart, it’s pretty obvious they really don’t like their customers. Indeed, in a number of discussions I’ve had with one of the owners (it’s a husband and wife team) he’s been at pains to tell me how the number of customers through their door has made their lives thoroughly miserable. As an example, when I recently suggested that such levels were surely a ‘good’ thing, he replied – and I quote – “that’s not the word I’d use”.

The couple purchased the business when they were in their early sixties, and this after a working life spent in aviation at a technical and administrative level respectively. That being the case, you’d have to question their thinking and suitability for the job when deciding to take on a busy B2C retail business (and with zero experience in the sector). But for them, it was clearly just about an alternative way to make a living (and probably perceived as a relatively easy way . . .) ahead of retirement, and never, ever about achieving success through putting customers at the heart of what they do – and the enjoyment that should go with it if you’re of that way of mind. For me, that would be a central tenet of buying and then running any bricks and mortar retail business, and this rather than having endless systems and processes, with none of these actually adding value to the customer experience – just to the personal satisfaction and needs of the owners. Unfortunately, there’s no alternative local retailer, so we grin and bear it and put up with the frosty reception from one owner and the moaning from the other. Anyway, back to my clients . . .

Perhaps not surprisingly, recent and strong suggestions to the business owners of my worst two performing clients on the customer-centricity scale, were both met with an initial position of denial. Which I pretty much expected, as I’d touched on the subject before with both of them and was fully aware that it wasn’t a subject they really got. And the latter is really the point, because few in business would surely go out their way to treat customers poorly – it’s much more that either they don’t realise they’re doing so, or if they do they don’t entirely get the negative impact it has on their business. It’s also the case that such business owners see customers as being the responsibility of forward-facing management and members of staff only, when in fact every employee – and with no exceptions – should have a customer-centric mind-set. Indeed, I made this very point to one of the business owners who was commenting on how some of his factory staff didn’t exactly cooperate with his customer services team who, in turn, didn’t always cooperate with his sales team – a perfect example for me to point out that if the factory and customer services team (you’d think the clue would be in the name of the latter) had an end customer always in their mind, then the problem would never occur.

Customer-centricity, its importance and how it can be achieved, is a huge topic and I’m only touching on it in this blog. However, my key points would be:

1. It’s important because, compared to a sales-centric culture, it puts long-term company success ahead of short-term sales and profit – which it does through building a stronger brand reputation.
2. Customer-centricity also breeds a more positive working environment, because it requires cooperation between individuals and departments who all have the same thing in mind – the customer.
3. Related to the last point, it also helps drive greater efficiency through removing the sort of political bullshit, silo mentality and points scoring that often plagues companies over a certain size.
4. Customer-centricity can only be achieved if the culture is driven from the top through leadership – so the business owner, CEO and/or MD.
5. A successful customer-centric culture means that everyone in the business buys into it, and regardless of their role or position of seniority.
6. Whilst it’s fair to say that all types of business – and be they operating in B2C or B2B markets – benefit from a customer-centric culture, pretty clearly the nature of the industry or sector has a bearing on the level of importance. For example, in retail it’s absolutely critical, and any independent retail business owner that doesn’t get that should pick a different way to earn a living. Same applies to hospitality.
7. In the pre-digital world (for those of us that can remember that far back), it was probably just about possible to get away with giving poor customer service and still run a successful business. But that’s not happening now, and if you still need convincing then, as a specific, have a read up on how customer reviews on platforms like Trustpilot impact on SEO.
8. Appropriate systems and process are also needed to deliver customer-centricity, as is the right level of resource. For example, a CRM system and enough people to manage it to ensure customer enquiries are dealt with quickly and efficiently.
9. Whilst an obvious and desired output of a customer-centric culture is a superb end-to-end customer experience, we all know that shit happens and no company can always get things right all the time. Therefore customer-centricity is also about the reaction when things do go wrong, with the approach, and speed of that approach, being critical. As an example, the client I’ve mentioned that could do a whole lot better, has an historic problem where the business owners and sales director routinely blame the customer when the customer complains – and before knowing all the facts. And they do this because the culture is much more sales-centric and their priority is therefore just to maintain profit margin (so tell the customer we can’t help them because to help them is going to reduce margin).
10. In my experience, companies which lack any sort of customer-centric culture also lack other fundamentals of a successful business – e.g. they have poor internal communication, may show insufficient respect towards suppliers (manifested in not paying them on time), and almost certainly don’t have a solid 5 years business plan in place. So in this respect they have a whole raft of self-imposed negative factors working against them which are going to threaten long-term success and even survival.

A further dynamic which is worth mentioning is the concept of internal customers, and relates to points 2 and 3 above. As an example of this, for two of my retained clients I have the specific responsibility of delivering sales leads as the core objective behind the marketing strategies I have in place for them. (One client offers high-end eco homes – circa half a million if you want one – and the other fairly high end kitchens. In both cases, I see the head of sales as my internal customer (accepting I’m not actually employed by either company – but you’ll get the idea). Such an acceptance of the concept of internal customers not only helps efficiency through cooperation and job focus, but also helps promote a common and unifying sense that the process is all there for the benefit of the actual paying customer.
On a final note, and as we all know of course, most customers have a choice of who they spend their money with. There are some exceptions – so perhaps for a consumer living in a remote location with one village shop, or a B2B customer having to buy highly specialist services or goods from a sole supplier with a market monopoly – but overall the old adage stands true.

Oh and I’m making good progress with those two clients.

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