Ask any c-suite executive about what they are doing differently to drive value for the organization, and they will almost certainly say “putting the customer at the center of everything we do” (or some version of that). It is the latest trend in the quest to become more agile and innovative. As companies deal with the speed of change in technology, a customer base with more options than ever, and ever-decreasing time to focus, making decisions that consistently delight their customers and attract new ones is the only way to stay relevant. The trick is how to do it.
Leading organizations recognize that the best strategic goals are linked directly to generating more customer value, because when the customer sees increased value, revenues and shareholder value naturally follow. This approach ensures that everyone, from the leadership team to the front line workers, are thinking about what’s best for the customer when they make decisions, which drives alignment and delivers better solutions to meet their needs.
However, most organizations get stuck at the money. They set strategic goals around increasing revenue or reducing costs. These may be great strategic outcomes, but as goals, they leave a lot of room for interpretation. As we’ve covered in past posts, starting with the money can cause teams to lose clarity around what’s important, which results in them focusing on the wrong tasks, and often making choices that are counter to customer needs — like skimping on service, or focusing on one type of customer while ignoring another.
Putting customer-centricity at the core of the strategic vision creates a culture that is aligned around driving value — however it takes more than a vision statement to get there. As with any corporate transformation, you can’t just tell employees to be more customer-centric and assume they will know what to do. You have to fundamentally change the culture around decision-making, and provide employees with the tools, training and freedom to follow a customer-centric path. This is where design thinking comes in.
Whether you are creating a new product, updating a software system, or adapting your talent acquisition strategy, design thinking is key to creating customer-centricity. Design thinking teaches us how to weave the customer perspective into decisions by pulling their voice and feedback into every step of the process, and developing empathy for their needs.
This process begins by actually talking to customers. There are some business leaders who feel they can skip this step because they already know what their customers want. Experience has taught us, over and over again, that the assumptions these leaders make about their customers are almost always incorrect. So to reiterate: to put the customer at the center of any process, you have to actually talk to them, frequently, and with a clear sense of what benefit you would like to help them achieve (but a very open mind as to how we might do that).
How to do it
Another mistake well-meaning team leaders make in the quest to be customer-centric is assuming the customer doesn’t need to be involved until the end of the process. In these cases, they may come up with an idea, build a product, and put it through a few iterations, before running it by customers. While this approach may seem more efficient, it often translates to a big waste of time because it contradicts to the entire customer-centric model. This is one of the reasons that roughly 80 percent of product launches fail.
Design thinking teaches us that just because you can build it, doesn’t mean customers will come. This lesson is equally true for involving internal stakeholders in decisions. IT teams in particular, will often be tasked with building new software systems or interfaces that are supposed to solve problems and increase productivity, but if they don’t integrate feedback from all relevant stakeholders, these efforts can easily backfire. Imagine for example that a team creates a fabulous new customer service platform that solve complaints with one-click completion of every field. But they wait till it’s fully design to show it to the legal department only to find out that the system is out of compliance with new data privacy laws. By not involving all relevant stakeholders up front, project teams risk investing a lot of time and resources into products that are doomed to fail.
To avoid such costly design mistakes, project teams need to put the customer first — literally — by bringing them into the conversation before planning even begins. Then, once they start generating ideas and creating prototypes, they need to go back to those customers at every important stage to find if they are on the right track.
Companies also need to measure success in terms of customer value rather than deadlines met or outputs delivered. No matter how quickly or thoroughly you finish a project, a customer’s happiness is the only measure that matters.
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Andrew Webster is the VP of Transformation at ExperiencePoint. Andrew leverages over 15 years of experience designing and delivering working models, design sprints, change interventions and training programs to develop and apply user-centric problem solving approaches and solutions. Andrew has worked with global organizations including Walmart, GE, Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, Deloitte, MetLife and Microsoft. He has also taught executives at leading universities, including Harvard Business School and IMD.