Guiding principles for the customer-centric organization
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By David Wolfe and Richard Frazier, Wolfe Resources Group

An authentic customer centric business model creates empathetic links with customers. It promotes dialogues in which empathy flows back and forth between company and customer. It allows both company and customer to be more vulnerable, a requisite for unguarded communications that inform both parties to mutual benefit. These are conditions on which healthy personal relationships depend. Healthy company-customer relationships depend on these same conditions.

These guiding principles define the essence of authentic, customer centric business models:

Customers control our destiny
Customers, not companies, control most markets. They do so by zapping commercials, walking away from company incompetence, taking leave of stores that give poor service, hanging up phones, and freely choosing what they will buy and from whom they will buy it.

Customers own our brands
Our brands are not ours to do with as we wish. We are but the trustee of our brands on behalf of their real owners – our customers. Our brand’s value is based on what customers are willing to put into it, not on what we can expect to get out of it. Brands are personalities. Customers only invest themselves in brands whose personalities they like. The only brand positioning that makes sense is one that allows customers to see themselves when beholding the brand.

Customers can seem mysterious the more we analyze them
A $6 billion research industry has mostly ignored the basics of customer behavior. At base, customers are simple to understand. A hundred years of behavior science embodies much of what we need to know to gain a basic understanding of customers. Customers want status, stimulation and security in love relationships, friendships, and in relationships with those who serve them, from business enterprises to houses of worship. That hasn’t changed in a thousand years, and it won’t change in the next thousand years.

Customers will lead us in the right direction
Customers follow their needs. Because their needs keep evolving, customers continuously change directions. If we follow them with resolve to serve their needs, they will stay with us. But customers will lead us only if we earn that right by being authentic, and if we meaningfully acknowledge their place in the value chain. We cannot create value without their participation.

Customers can’t always tell us what they want
Customers do not lead by telling, but by marking their trails with signs. We must learn the language of the customer to know what a sign says. If we ask customers about their changing needs, they may not know the answers, though they may tell us otherwise. The truth can often be more secure in what we intuitively sense than in what we see or hear, but to acquire such uncanny sense, we must have a basic understanding of customers (see principle no. 3).

Customers will teach us if we demonstrate empathy
Empathy is about understanding another person’s circumstances, feelings and motives. Connecting empathetically with customers is not enough; we must give them ways to empathetically connect with our company and our brands. Any enduring, mutually satisfying relationship depends on dialogue in which each person empathetically acknowledges what the other says.

Customers want us to succeed
Customers want to be associated with a winner. Customers invest their identities, as they perceive them, in everything they do. When the integrity of what they have invested in is compromised, they feel pain. The corollary of this is that when customers see fortune smiling on the object of an identity investment, they celebrate in action, if not in words, by growing closer to the object of their investment.

Customers want other people to join them as our customers
Customers feel pleasure when others make the same decisions they have made. It makes them feel part of a community, more secure in their decision to be our customer, and it makes them feel smarter when their decisions were made before others made theirs. If we turn customers into satisfied villagers in our community, they will work with other villagers to build our business. “Word-of-mouth” is now called “viral marketing,” but whatever we call people talking about us, customers will compulsively share their satisfying experiences with us with others when we exceed their expectations.

Customers don't want to abandon us
Customers prefer certainty. They don’t want to reverse decisions they have made, nor break relationships with which those decisions are associated. They are not fickle; they change their minds when their circumstances and needs change. But they will abandon us in a single moment if we abandon them. Customers can quickly sense signs of abandonment despite a company's claim that it is customer driven. Our company may even send signs of customer abandonment that we don’t recognize. So, as the authentic customer centric company needs a basic understanding of customers, it also needs a basic understanding of itself. Otherwise, like a person hearing her own voice for the first time and exclaiming, “It doesn’t sound like me,” our company will not recognize itself in customers’ perceptions.

Customers’ perceptions are shaped by each of us
Authenticity can’t be faked. Sooner or later – usually sooner than later – customers will see right through it. For customers to perceive us as having a genuine passion to given them value, each of us must feel valued by our company. The quality of our relationships with customers is predicted by the quality of our relationships with our company and with each other.

Copyright © 2001 David Wolfe and Richard Frazier

The Institute for Developmental Relationship Marketing

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