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Customer-centricity starts by being humble

28th Jul 2022
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Over the course of my career, I’ve met many executives confident in their understanding of customers. So many, in fact, that I’ve lost count. These are smart people, who often have decades of experience.

It’s easy to understand their position. With huge ships to steer, decision-makers often feel as though they must know their customers. In the cut-throat commercial sector, there’s no alternative. You either know your customer best, or someone else steals them away.

But there’s a fine line to be found between knowledge and over-confidence. Because, the truth is that truly customer-centric cultures reject this sentiment entirely. Being customer-centric isn’t about knowing and anticipating wants or needs, it’s about having the humility to ask.

What humility adds to business

Humility breaks business leaders out of a common default position of acquired customer knowledge. To put it another way, the more a person learns about how their market acts, the more likely they are to rely on that understanding to make decisions.

But, as any good marketer will tell you, humans are irrational. Previous actions are not always a strong indicator of future behaviours.

It’s precisely because of this that acquired customer knowledge and decision-making heuristics can fall foul of good practice. Humility provides a simple concept to center around, removing the pressure for leadership to be experts in customer behaviour. It’s not a failure to be unsure of how customers will react, it’s a strength.

Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t challenges to following such a doctrine. There most certainly are. For a start, producing research and data at such a scale requires some serious investment. And marketing leaders face an even bigger hurdle in getting management teams on board with what is quite a radical approach to business.

But the benefits are clear. Customer-centric companies are, as found by the University of Reading, 60% more profitable than those that are not. If that doesn’t sell the case, nothing else will.

How to put insight at the heart of decisions

Change is hard. But, based on my experience, there are four simple steps that you can take to put humility and customer insight at the heart of any culture. In isolation, these might appear small. That’s because change is really about simplicity, frequency and consistency. Here’s why I recommend:

  • Add the insight question to business-case processes. Whether it’s on an initial scoping form or built into the sign-off process, the simple act of consistently asking, ‘Has the customer been consulted?’ is a powerful way to shape behaviour.
  • Train leaders to ask the question. Simplicity and repetition are key. However, in this case, rather than baking it into existing processes, guide and encourage business leaders to own the question and consistently ask, ‘What customer evidence supports this?’
  • Highlight positive and negative examples of decision-making processes. It may seem like a blunt instrument, but a sharp contrast between successful initiatives driven by customer feedback and costly mistakes can be an incredibly effective tool in encouraging positive behaviours.
  • Invest in talented researchers, marketers and supporting software. It’s important to have the right team around you to drive such an initiative. Hire right, and equip them with the tools they need to start having an impact across the whole organisation.

The importance of proximity and frequency

Of course, these are just suggestions. The truth is, there is no one-size fits all solution. Every business is different. Every leadership team is different. If there is one theme that remains consistent between all tactics however, it’s this:

Customer-centric cultures built on humility bring real buyers into close contact with executive teams on a regular basis.

This process grounds the business. It provides a constant reminder that executives are people, and customers are people too. While they may be extremely different, the best way to bridge the gap between the two is have open and honest dialogue. That’s what is at the heart of a truly successful customer-centric culture.

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