It is NOT the Year of the Customer

The Year of the Customer! How many years have to receive this label before companies start acting like its true? Harvard Business School professor Len Schlesinger calls it nonsense.

Charles Trevail

CEO at C Space

2013. 2015. 2017. …The Year of the Customer!

How many years have to receive this label before companies start acting like its true?

Harvard Business School professor Len Schlesinger calls it nonsense. “It is ALWAYS the year of the customer!” he declares. So, how do companies deliver? “It’s actually quite simple. Find out who your customers are, find out what they want, and try to give it to them.”

Len’s life’s work has been, literally, all business: teaching it, running it, helping it grow. He regularly consults with the world’s biggest brands, governments, and non-profits. He’s held Chief Operating Officer positions at Au Bon Pain and L Brands (formerly Limited Brands). From 2008 to 2013, he served as the 12th President of Babson College. And, he’s served as a member of the Harvard Business School faculty for more than three decades.

A few weeks ago, I visited Harvard Business School to have a conversation with Len for my latest episode of Outside In (listen to it here). I’ve known Len for some time, but this was my opportunity to understand why, in his view, so many companies still haven’t cracked the code on becoming truly customer-centric.

What’s in a title?

Customer centricity is a notion that’s been on the minds of senior leaders for more than 20 years. Yet, so many companies have struggled to achieve it. Why? “The vast majority [of companies] start with taking care of shareholders and hope that there’s money or time leftover for customers or employees,” Len explains.

In other words, far too many companies treat customers as an afterthought or as transactions from which to extrapolate data. But at the same time, Len is “naturally suspicious” of the growing number of chief customer officer roles in business today. A “Chief Anything” automatically implies “status,” he says; it puts that person on a pedestal and “communicates the absolution from responsibility” for everyone else to serve the needs of customers and employees. What’s more, this “great avoidance mechanism” in Len’s view builds “significant overhead” and rarely “translates into fundamental behavioral change inside the organization.”

For those in the C-suite, that’s probably tough to hear! But, he offers some practical, deceptively simple advice: don’t focus on your title. Spend time “trying to build the capabilities of the organization to do its work” and “recognize that customer centricity has to be built into the fiber and fabric of the organization as opposed to an episodic level of attention to customers.”

It’s time to humanize big data

Lots of companies use Net Promoter Score (NPS) to infer how likely customers are to recommend their company to others. The higher the score, the more favorably customers look upon the company.

If used effectively, Len acknowledges that NPS “has the capacity to be a very powerful tool.” Its popularity is driven by its simplicity. It’s one number. However, that simplicity, he says, often disposes people to abuse it. And therein lies the danger; NPS can “be manipulated just like any other customer interface score.”

Len questions to what extent “insights” are translated into day-to-day managerial organizational behavior that affects growth. “We have an absolutely incredible capacity to generate data on customers,” Len affirms. “Very little of that data would be classified as an insight.”

Len says there is no question that customer behavior and the customer relationship are related to profitability. And I agree. While insights are certainly informed by many sources datathere’s no question that, in order to become truly customer-centric, businesses simply need to be more human. From personal stories and perspectives emerge the most resonant ideas and insights – the ones that stick with you, help build consensus, lead to action, and create growth.

 “It is ALWAYS the year of the customer”

Len laughs when he recalls the countless times he’s heard senior executives declare to their teams, “It’s the year of the customer.” But in business, there’s nothing funny, or profitable, about platitudes. Len’s truth bears repeating: “It is ALWAYS the year of the customer.”

Genuine customer centricity is within every company’s grasp. But, as Len points out, they just have to embrace it. “The reality is, the more obvious it is, and the more evidence we have of its obvious nature, the more it becomes a fundamental leadership question. And culture question.”

You may be interested in:

Generation Wealth

Generation Wealth Looking back at the ostentatious tribes of the early 2000s   By Lauren Greenfield, Director of Award Winning Ad Campaign “Like a Girl”, anthropologist and writerLAUREN GREENFIELD/INSTITUTE Xue Qiwen, 43, in her Shanghai apar​tment, decorated...

The Renaissance of “Me”

The Renaissance of “Me” By Franco Bonadio, Managing Partner, Human TruthsBill Alberti, Managing Partner, Human TruthsAntoinette Jones, Associate ConsultantMachiko Wilson, Associate ConsultantBy default, we tend to look at one thing as “better than” another. It doesn’t...

Introducing the Express Arena

Introducing the Express Arena By Jessica DeVlieger, Global CEOA surprising new behavioral trend has been observed in the UK; British people - a nation famously obsessed with class - are starting to hide their privilege.In January 2020, Sam Friedman, a sociologist at...

Rebuilding Women’s Health from the Patient Up

Reimagining Women’s HealthThe world of women’s healthcare is primed for disruption, at least if you’re talking to the women who comprise the market of this $10B*+ industry – and we are. In this report, we reimagine women’s healthcare with everyday women leading the...

From push to pull

From push to pull Jessica DeVlieger, Global CEOHow do you move your brand from push to pull?You communicate at eye-level.You speak to people’s souls.You act more human.You become more relevant.Push marketing has been stuck in controversy for some time. Consumers'...

Mary Barra, Chair and CEO, General Motors: On The Road to an All-Electric Future

Mary Barra, Chair and CEO, General Motors: On The Road to an All-Electric FutureSubscribe to the Outside In podcast: At the beginning of 2021, Mary Barra, Chair and CEO at General Motors, set an ambitious goal for the legendary automaker: end tailpipe emissions from...

John Kotter, Harvard Business School: The Principles, Practices, and Science of Change

John Kotter, Harvard Business School: The Principles, Practices, and Science of ChangeSubscribe to the Outside In podcast: Change is hard. And it never stops. The volatility, speed, and uncertainty that comes with change has been increasing exponentially over the past...

Pam Lifford, President, Global Brands & Experiences, Warner Bros.: Fans and the Power of Listening

Pam Lifford, President, Global Brands & Experiences, Warner Bros.: Fans and the Power of Listening Subscribe to the Outside In podcast: Harry Potter. Batman. Looney Tunes. Game of Thrones. Each of these iconic franchises has shaped popular culture for years....

Reshma Saujani: Fighting for Gender Parity and a ‘Marshall Plan for Moms’

Reshma Saujani: Fighting for Gender Parity and a ‘Marshall Plan for Moms’Subscribe to the Outside In podcast: Reshma Saujani founded Girls Who Code in 2012, with a mission to close the gender gap in computer science and educate and prepare girls for careers in the...

Franklin Leonard: The Black List That’s Changing Hollywood

Franklin Leonard: The Black List That’s Changing HollywoodSubscribe to the Outside In podcast: Before “Argo,” “Juno,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” and “The King’s Speech” became some of the most successful films in Hollywood (and subsequently went on to win Oscars), they...