Why a customer-curious culture trumps customer-centric culture - and how to nurture curiosity
Customer-centricity is a flawed goal. But there is an alternative objective that is more meaningful to customers and employees.
A couple of years ago - during a water-cooler conversation on the requirements for success in an increasingly digital world - my then colleague Elliot Howard proposed ‘customer-curiosity’.
This immediately struck me as a very powerful idea. My discomfort with ‘customer-centricity’ - outlined in my previous article - had been fermenting for a while. And curiosity struck me as a far more useful mantra, faring better on the criteria against which customer-centricity failed.
1. Curiosity can be defined unambiguously
Firstly, customer-curiosity can be clearly and usefully defined – continually seeking to understand who is buying the company’s products and services and when, where, how and why they are buying and consuming them. (Equally valuable is the knowledge of who isn’t buying them and when, where and how they aren’t being used by existing purchasers when they could be.)
Such a definition is far more actionable than definitions of centricity such as ‘putting the customer at the heart of everything we do.’
2. Curiosity can be measured
The vagueness of centricity means that it can’t be measured directly, only indirectly through outcomes. But as curiosity delivers increased knowledge and understanding about customers, there are a number of measures that can be applied.
Firstly, there are standard data measures covering the accuracy, completeness and timeliness of customer data – the foundation of customer-curiosity that all information on customers is correct and up to date. At a more strategic level, it can be quantified in terms of the number of valuable and actionable new insights gained during a particular period. Some subjectivity will be involved in what is new, actionable and valuable, but given qualitative assessments are the stock in trade for marketing executives, gaining consensus around such judgments shouldn’t be a challenge.
3. Cause and effect are easy to map
As argued in the previous piece, it is not immediately clear that customer-centricity actually improves the customer experience. Firstly, because of its vague definition and immeasurability, also because customers may want an arm’s length relationship rather than being at the heart of everything the company does.
Like centricity, curiosity is a means rather than an end, so it suffers in that regard. But the cause and effect relationship is clear – the more insights a business has into its customers’ needs, the more value it can create for them. It supports the creation of insight advantage, potentially the most powerful source of competitive advantage that exists in the knowledge economy.
4. Curiosity does not exclude in the way centricity does
One of the big challenges with centricity is that it implies singularity - objects typically have a single centre and we tend to translate from the physical to the conceptual. The singularity of customer centricity denigrates the importance of any part of the organisation that is not customer facing. It also ignores the importance of other stakeholder groups that contribute to delivering a great customer experience – employees, partners, channels, suppliers – in a way that ensures profitability for shareholders.
So while customer-centricity plays well in marketing, sales and service functions – validating their organisational pre-eminence - elsewhere it has, at best, a hollow ring. And for CEOs who have to take all interests into account, calls for customer-centricity may seem unrealistic and unattainable, leading to stasis regarding customer experience improvement.
With curiosity, no such exclusions apply. Everyone in the organisation can be curious about customers – both at work and outside if they happen to interact with customers in personal situations – without it impeding the specific centricity they require to perform their role effectively.
5. Curiosity works for any stakeholder group
Curiosity, not being exclusive, can be applied across groups. You can be customer-curious, employee-curious, partner-curious, supplier-curious and regulator-curious all at the same time without any need to twist what curious means.
There is a value exchange between a business and all its stakeholder groups. The more insight the business has into the needs and priorities of each group, the more value it can create and the more value it can gain in return. While customer-curiosity is an obvious focus, curiosity is both reproducible as a general cultural trait and valuable.
6. CEOs can model curiosity in a way they can’t with centricity
How can CEOs show customer-centricity? They can talk about it, reward examples of it but rarely does the CEO’s role encompass delivering what the business provides to customers on a day-to-day basis (at least not in a larger business).
But curiosity is a behaviour CEOs can display every time they meet with customers. A CEO is accorded more respect and perceived as being removed from day-to-day activities, giving her or him a right to ask questions that no one else can ask. The foundation of successful selling – value selling in particular – is listening more than talking.
The more the CEO models this behaviour, the more other members of the c-suite will follow. And the more they follow, the more their management teams will as well. If the CEO plays the part of chief curiosity officer, culture change will trickle down.
Focusing customer-curiosity – understanding customers' stories
Through emphasising listening over talking, a customer-curious organisation will have a significantly lower marketing talk-listen ratio than its peers. But customer-curiosity is more than upping the expenditure on market research and customer analytics. Nor is it about engaging front line staff to perform standard customer surveys as part of their day-to-day responsibilities.
These surveys frequently deliver a poor customer experience because their focus is on measuring satisfaction with what the business delivers rather than really understanding the customer (this is where curiosity veers into nosiness). The objective of curiosity should be to deliver deeper insights into the lives of customers, more akin to those delivered by ethnographers observing customers in their own environment, in ways that make the customer feel appreciated and valued. Hence it requires a completely different way of thinking about what information is to be collected and how. This can be done through capturing customers’ stories - from their perspective, not the company’s.
The importance of storytelling is becoming increasingly recognised. Robert McKee, the legendary scriptwriting lecturer whose pupils have written some of Hollywood’s most successful films, also advises firms on how to raise funding through telling compelling stories. Within the innovation sphere, there is a shift away from PowerPoint presentations focused on facts and figures to content and media that are more emotionally engaging when presenting the commercial case for funding new ventures.
McKee makes the point that the former is an intellectual process that is fraught with difficulty because whatever statistics or authorities you quote, your audience will probably have their own so they will be arguing in their heads with you as the listen. And even if you do succeed, your persuasion may not be sufficiently engaging to encourage action. But if you take the latter approach - unite an idea with an emotion by telling a compelling story - you arouse the listener’s emotions and their energy. Persuasion is only effective if it leads to action.
Both these are examples of telling stories with the business or venture as the protagonist, funding providers being the intended audience. Marketing material – case studies, references – take the same approach, though this time potential customers are the audience. The objective of customer-curiosity is to capture stories where customers are the protagonists. And the target audience for these stories is employees. These are the people we serve, this is how we make their lives better, how can we do even more?
The challenge with this approach is that the service or product provided will only ever be a walk-on role in the customer’s life. It requires great humility to collect a story where that is the case. But it is the best way I can see for translating ‘putting the customer at the heart of everything we do’ into actions that enable that to happen.
In McKee’s words, a story describes how and why life changes – where has someone come from, what events have set them on a different path to the one they envisaged, what are the challenges they faced, how have they surmounted or circumvented them, how have they changed in the process, what are they seeking now and what are the obstacles to achieving it?
All this provides context and earns the right to ask a few more company-oriented questions - how does what we provide fit into their life, why did they first choose us, why do they continue to buy? All of which can be gained at the end of a call centre conversation (particularly if you have an innovation lab within your contact centre staffed by experienced agents). ‘We are trying to collect our customers’ stories, would you give me five minutes of your time to tell me a little bit about yourself?’
In some cases, where someone is very happy to talk (or you are the CEO of a B2B business visiting a customer), you can dig a little further, for example into how people see themselves. As Stanford Professor James March’s research has shown, how we define ourselves shapes our behaviour. I am someone who wants to give my children the chances I never had and so will buy the best I can for them.
We are a high end engineering company – first and foremost we need to protect our reputation so we are not going to buy the best quality components that are on the market. Insights into self-identification of your customers (and the identity of those who could be customers but are not) will deliver clearer understanding of who is buying and why, also who should be targeted and who shouldn’t.
Initiatives focused on customer-centricity as a means for improving the customer experience have had the desired effect, and that is backed up by macro-level data on customer satisfaction.
Should the customer still be willing to talk, next you can drill down into the problems that the customer needs to solve to achieve their desired outcomes and the role what you are providing plays in that.
What products or services are customers buying and how are they using them – what problems are they solving? Why do they see what you provide as the best solution to each particular problem? When and where are they using your solution (and not)? What do they do immediately before and after using it? How could your offering be improved? What other problems are they not solving as effectively as they would like? What are the big cost items where small percent savings would deliver the biggest return?
In the case of prospects, how are they solving the problems you can help them with – competitor offerings, completely alternative solutions, workarounds – and why? As mentioned above, the greater the understanding you have into customers, the more you can create value for them.
Which brings us back to the value of customer-curiosity.
At the moment the returns are unproven – there isn’t the data available to prove that it will deliver more customers, more revenue, more margin because (to my knowledge) no one has really tried it as a strategy. As outlined in my previous article, I do not believe that initiatives focused on customer-centricity as a means for improving the customer experience have had the desired effect, and that is backed up by macro-level data on customer satisfaction.
I also believe that if you criticise something, it behoves you to outline a vision for an alternative and argue why it could be superior. That is what I have attempted to do here and if any would-be customer experience innovator has been persuaded, I would be delighted to help. At the very least, I look forward to seeing their results.