Customer Centricity : In Search of The Common Good - Relationships Make Loyal Customers

Dr Alexander Cassar is the founder of the international PRISM Consulting Group, a specialist stakeholder loyalty firm headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland with operations across Europe.  Check out the PRISM website

Best known for his customer loyalty expertise, Dr Cassar is a leading authority on relationship management and its role in business performance improvement. Before starting PRISM he had a successful corporate career, most notably within the IT industry (NCR Corp) and financial services (most recently as VP of a major Private Bank in Switzerland). He obtained his MBA from Cranfield University and a Doctorate from Henley Management College.

He combines academic excellence with a pragmatic hands-on approach and has helped a number of blue-chip companies attain significant performance improvement through relationship-based methods. In recent years he is a passionate promoter of the concept of stakeholder relationship management, whereby employees, customers, shareholders and other entities are viewed in their correlation. Jointly with US associate Michael Lowenstein he developed the Employee Engagement methodology and the Employee Scorecard, a diagnostic tool to measure employee engagement and motivation.

First published by The Wise Marketer in July 2003.

In search of the common good: Understanding customers' feelings through CRM and building better customer-employee relationships.

Mainstream western commercial culture has for the past decade searched for its lost roots in customer centricity and the fundamentals of being closer to the customer.

The result has been massive investment in technology, business processes, and human resources - and a growing sense of over-estimation of benefits and an under-estimation of the efforts required.

Throw in the economic recession that has characterised the first few years of the third millennium and we are faced with a situation that constitutes the antithesis of a customer-focused business culture. My question is: When are we going to recognise this customer bankruptcy ?

Enterprises worship technological advances that enable them to acquire new business and to protect their existing customers. But while this is what has been promised in theory, in practice it is barren soil for most European industry sectors.

Why aren't more leading captains of industry saying that a solid foundation for building a customer-focused organisation demands the pursuit of the common good ? Why aren't CEOs of leading businesses proposing practical plans that incorporate customer centricity ?

Cost Cutters

The biggest issue we face these days is the relentless drive towards cost cutting - imposing the will of financial analysts. Built almost entirely on a materialist short-term philosophy, this approach treats profit as the only goal. But it also sacrifices most of the characteristics of customer centricity that produce that 'common good' we want to pursue.

Short-term stock market performance represents the new ideology, at the expense of customer centricity.

Reviewing the recent stock market performance of some of the information-intensive industries (such as financial services, telecommunications, and retail), I often wonder what type of spirit was behind the many customer centric projects that mushroomed in the middle to late 1990's - the ones that drove the CRM technology machine.

And what was unleashed with the popularisation of the internet ? Why there were so many failed internet ventures that were financed by educated and undoubtedly experienced people ? And why did so many enterprises fail to deliver on their customer relationship promises ?

A Lost Focus ?

During my various projects, I have come to understand that each organisation has a particular approach to its customer focus. Without it, customer centricity cannot be achieved.

I have worked with people who had a positive customer focus but, upon joining a new company and encountering a negative customer-focus, they found themselves influenced by that negative feeling - the result is a counter productive atmosphere. In the process, these same individuals lost their customer focus and changed noticeably for the worse.

Similarly, I have seen others who joined customer-focused companies, and their movements have been enhanced and grown through the process of getting closer to the customer. I have also seen some exceptional people combine to turn an unfocused company into a positive customer-focused one.

It seems, therefore, that a customer-focused culture is both possible and sustainable. Of course many argue that there are limits, and that such a strong focus need not last forever. But the issue has to be tackled with the same enthusiasm that CEOs currently show for their cost-cutting programmes.

Nurture The Focus

My theory is that unless the 'customer focus' in individual employees is recognised and nurtured, customer centricity will be short-lived in any organisation.

In order to achieve the sometimes elusive common good, people have to really care about their customers. It is up to the CEO to make sure those individuals see this happen in practice and that everybody gets a fair deal. But with little or no recognition of the need to sustain, nurture, and develop a true customer focus across the entire enterprise, it is no surprise that many CRM (customer relationship management) projects fail, or are abandoned for the wrong reasons.

Ask yourself where in your corporate agenda these discussions ever take place ? When was the last time you saw the media seriously explore how customers feel, and how businesses view them ? How can you change a less-than-positive approach toward customer centricity ?

Among other things, CEOs will have to revisit the best of their organisation's customer-focused traditions that are known to strengthen relationships, and take another look at the practices underpinning their customer focus. Each different industry sector will need to see its own customer centricity in a different way.

The world of commerce has not yet lost its customer focus completely, and many (including financial services and telecommunications) are already looking at some of the roots of their customer relationships so that their better aspects can be integrated into a more meaningful CRM strategy.

A Way Forward

In practical terms, every company needs to develop models whereby the customer focus is integrated more fully into their way of doing business. CEOs must acknowledge that the issue needs to be recognised and handled, one customer at a time, if sustainable customer centricity is to occur.

I often talk about whispering to a single customer rather than shouting to all of the customers at once. For some, such a statement may simply confirm my eccentricity of treating customers as individuals. For others this constitutes the essence of a relationship.

The CRM industry has enabled many organisations to learn more about their customers' needs and wants. One of the aims of a CRM project is to help change employee feelings toward customers, and to nurture a genuine desire to get closer to the customer wherever possible.

In essence this is a process that should lead to a better customer focus. And before a real change can occur, CRM project leaders will need to dedicate an increasing amount of time encouraging employees to reflect on customer feelings.

Customer centricity - true customer focus - is a process, not an overnight change. There are several ways to tackle the task, too. Clearly, a disciplined sustained approach is most effective. What leads to holistic, pragmatic customer centricity is the recognition that everybody interacts and depends on everyone else -whether management, employees, or customers.

Of course, I acknowledge that we all face difficult times - politically, economically, socially, and technologically. But if CRM executives recognise that they are today planting the seeds of tomorrow's customer centricity, the entire organisation can work simultaneously on growing profitable customer relationships. It's this kind of customer focus can help a business stay close to its customers: committed, focused, and conscious of the common good.

© Copyright Dr Sandro Cassar, PRISM Consulting Group, 2003

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