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:

Inflection Spotting

Inflection Spotting There’s a good chance that you’re lost right now. Perhaps something changed on your path, and you’re unaware that you’re headed in the wrong direction. The thing about being lost is that you’re usually lost for some time before you know...

What the Grocery Stores Holding Their Own Against Amazon Are Doing Right

What the Grocery Stores Holding Their Own Against Amazon Are Doing Right

by Amit Sharma
Harvard Business Review

A 2018 consumer survey by C Space found that shoppers were more likely to recommend and purchase repeatedly from brands that made them feel respected and understood.

The future of service stations

The future of service stations

by Ben Moncrieffe (C Space)
Quirk’s

As electric cars become more common, and consumers continue to seek outstanding CX, service stations and interstate rest stops need to rethink their purpose and design. 

Guy Kawasaki: Evangelist in Chief

Guy Kawasaki: Evangelist in Chief Subscribe to the Outside In podcast: Guy Kawasaki pioneered evangelism marketing. Starting in the mid-1980s as Chief Evangelist at Apple, Kawasaki spread the good gospel of the Macintosh computer. The product itself,...
Critical: Listening

Critical: Listening

Critical: Listening I was in New York City attending a conference on “social media listening” when a shelter-in-place alert flashed across my phone. In that moment, social media was what I wanted to listen to. Julie Wittes Schlack is...

Tom Colicchio: Lessons from the Chef

Tom Colicchio: Lessons from the Chef Subscribe to the Outside In podcast: Tom Colicchio is a James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Crafted Hospitality, a restaurant group with restaurants across the U.S. He’s also a judge on “Top Chef,” Bravo’s...

The death and rebirth of the gas station

The death and rebirth of the gas station Gas stations are unique places. They sit at the intersection of retail, hospitality, energy, and mobility. But the truth is, without serious innovation, gas stations will end up like deserted Wild West Main Streets....

The Lifestyle Experience

The Lifestyle Experience Thirty years ago, the brand was advertising. TV and radio commercials, billboards, print ads – these, along with word-of-mouth, were just about the only interactions customers had with a brand before they bought its products,...

Tina Sharkey, Brandless CEO: It’s Gotta Have Soul

Tina Sharkey, Brandless CEO: It’s Gotta Have Soul Subscribe to the Outside In podcast: Tina Sharkey is an entrepreneurial force. Since the days of the dial-up modem, she has been building communities, companies, and brands “with soul.” Today, she’s...

What Retailers Need to Know to Own Customer Experience in the Apparel Industry

What Retailers Need to Know to Own Customer Experience in the Apparel Industry

by Robert Howie (C Space)
Apparel Magazine

Although the market has proven uncertain for several brands, retailers can survive these difficult times. For the apparel market to succeed in delivering better experiences for customers, it needs to go back to basics.