TOM CRITCHLOW
March 1, 2024

How do You Cultivate Customer-Centric Executives?

Thinking about deep perspective change in executives

summary
After consulting with ~40 companies across a wide range of industries and sizes, I ask the question: what have I observed about the most successful companies?

The answer is that the most successful companies have a key executive who is customer-centric - someone who has a rich mental model for what customers want and is able to step into the customer's shoes.

I theorize that beyond a culture of being customer-centric it's the ability to make key decisions with a customer-centric mindset that is important. But how do you cultivate this perspective for executives?

“Many companies describe themselves as customer-focused, but few walk the walk. Most big technology companies are competitor focused. They see what others are doing, and then work to fast follow. In contrast, 90 to 95% of what we build in AWS is driven by what customers tell us they want.” - Jeff Bezos

Recently I asked myself a question: after working as a consultant for 10 years, across some 40 companies: what makes some companies more successful than others? Is there anything I’ve observed that might predict success?

The answer I’ve arrived at, somewhat surprisingly, is that having a key executive being customer-centric is a key determining factor. Note that this is a more specific insight than merely “having a culture of being customer-centric”, though of course one is related to the other. The key I think is that it’s about decision making. It’s not enough to have customer-centric thinking, you need customer-centric decisions - and that requires some kind of senior executive sponsor.

This is of course anecdotal - there are plenty of factors that determine success but this has been validated on a few key consulting projects where I’ve observed first hand the departure of a key customer-centric executive and the subsequence decline of the organization.

Interestingly - every single company I work with would claim to be customer-centric. Just like every company claims to be data-driven, it’s become a kind of generic stance that companies adopt. After all - who would claim to ignore their customers? But, like the Jeff Bezos quote above - most companies don’t actually walk the walk.

So, let’s use the 👟 shoe emoji to represent the idea of stepping into the customer’s shoes shall we?

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Part 1: What Does it Mean to be Customer Centric?

First things first, what does it mean to be customer centric? Some different flavors:

  • Sensitivity to the market, how your company stacks up against the competitive landscape
  • Understanding customer’s motivations and pain points
  • Anticipating customer behaviors and being able to step into their shoes to think and act on their behalf
  • Aesthetic taste for what resonates with customers and a sensitivity to signs and symbols that represent ideas for your customers
  • Respecting the customer - prioritizing things like respectful ads, fast loading site speed and customer support
  • Being able to translate specific customer pain points and frustrations into generalized products, services and solutions

I’m sure there is a crisp definition in there somewhere about what it means to be customer-centric but let’s sit with the tension for moment.

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Some personal archetypes: Neil Vogel & Andy Berndt

We’re talking about something slightly nebulous, so it’s useful to have some specific archetypes. Two key executives I’ve worked with that fit this trait: Neil Vogel, CEO at Dotdash/Meredith and Andy Berndt, founder of Google’s Creative Lab.

Neil Vogel has always been a huge champion for respectful ads, fast loading sites and expert written content:

Vogel told Adweek’s Ann-Marie Alcántara that they decided to “only build sites we wanted to use.” That meant fewer ads—no pop-ups, no interstitial—and creating content that’s actually helpful. That means creating informative articles that turn up in search results. They are mostly written by professionals or subject matter experts, rather than journalists.

Working with Neil he was always able to prioritize and talk about the customer experience - to be able to “only build sites we wanted to use” - this sounds obvious or easy but is suspiciously lacking in many businesses. This customer-focus appears quite ingrained across IAC. I wrote about being customer-centric in SEO, quoting Joey Levin:

"We have the most valuable content in the category for any homeowner searching online for help with a home project: service professional directories and ratings, closed-loop user reviews, real cost data, and the ability to get the job done on our site, all wrapped in a unified brand built for the category. We haven’t yet exposed many of those features to a broad audience with a clean and fast user interface, which could help recover lost ground in search." source: IAC Q3 2022 Shareholder Letter

Andy Berndt is another executive I worked with at Google’s Creative Lab and was perhaps the most singularly brilliant executive I’ve ever worked with at being able to channel customer’s perspective1. This manifested in projects like unifying Google’s visual language, redesigning the Google logo, standardizing the login experience and more.

Andy doesn’t have much stuff online but there’s a good example of his ability around 17:02 in this video where he talks about someone knocking on your day to “check the motors” and how ridiculous that would be. The ability to ground analogies, concepts and frustrations for users in simple ideas like this is very powerful and Andy would this this all day long.

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Being Customer Centric is Unmeasurable?

Amazon WBR has 100s of charts and graphs. But there’s two exceptions:

The deck is primarily charts, graphs and data tables. Since there are hundreds of visualizations to review, written notes will bog the meeting down too much. Two notable exceptions to this rule are ‘exception reporting’, as well as the ‘voice of the customer’ anecdotes that customer service is allowed to insert into the metrics deck.

There’s plenty of ways to measure customer satisfaction and customer behavior, but if you can measure them then you’re just being data driven.

Here’s one definition of being customer-centric: the ability to prioritize things that you can’t immediately measure. This is hard! Many businesses are a slave to their data and so one definition of this is that being customer-centric is being able to prioritize things that customers need/want above and beyond what is measurable. Because every business does things that are customers need/want - but in the context of being customer-centric it has to go beyond the routine or minimum, or even measurable perspective.

There are plenty of studies that show the benefit of being customer-centric but I think a lot of those uplifts are measured long after the fact. It can be hard to measure the impact directly, immediately, which again is why I think it’s not about a general culture of being customer-centric but you need that key executive sponsor capable of making customer-centric decisions above and beyond what the data says.

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Customer Behavior Has Changed

Obviously customer behaviors are changing in all kinds of ways, but one fundamental truth that is radically different in the age of the internet is choice. Not just that customer have more choice than ever (somewhat obvious) but a consequence of this is that buyers look at three times more of your competitors than they used to:

For executives that have lived through this transition it can be hard to properly internalize how much more important the competitive landscape is. Pricing, positioning, value prop, all matter more than they used to - generating demand is less important than it used to be (relatively speaking of course, demand is still critical).

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Maybe Maps Help?

Here’s a thought - I’ve been playing around with wardly maps recently and one thing that strikes me is that they might be a useful tool to get more nuanced about customer-centric projects.

My hunch: customer-centric thinking (and executive leadership) only matters for the least commoditized areas. It’s these areas that require most sensitivity to customer behaviors and that these areas are least likely to have norms and standards to reference in the market.

Shower Curtains & The Best Bathroom in the US

The Excellence Dividend presentation is a great provocation around hospitality, service and customer-centric thinking.

It seems like customer-centric thinking and hospitality are very similar concepts? Are they the same? Unclear. Certainly the approach to going above and beyond for customers is closely related to being able to put yourself in the customer’s shoes. The Disney Institute runs courses that teach leaders and organizations to build better customer service cultures.

How effective are these interventions? Hmm. 🤔

What would it look like to design a training program like The Disney Institute, but designed around digital-first businesses over customer-service businesses?


Part 2: Becoming Customer Centric

Ok, so we’ve taken a view across the landscape and explored what it means to be customer centric a little. But how do you become customer centric? In particular, I think the key idea is not “how do you get an organization to be customer centric?” but rather “how do you get a key executive to become customer centric?”.

There are various guides about organizations becoming customer centric like this good piece by Survey Monkey:

But something about this makes me feel uneasy - internal satisfaction surveys? It all feels a bit like paying lip service to an idea that needs to be deeply ingrained. A measured approach to something unmeasurable, a tangible approach to something intangible…

My lived experience working with founders, CEOs and executives is that the power is in something more personal. It’s not about a company-wide culture of being customer-centric as much as a singular vision, passion and voice for being customer centric that comes from a key executive that enables customer-centric decision making.

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Building Customer Journey Maps

Here’s something that I know doesn’t work: telling executives that they have a blind spot. Sure, every executive will pretend to be self aware enough to invite this kind of feedback but… spoiler alert: very few actually are.

So what might an executive intervention look like? Well, much like a Wardly map is non-confrontational tool to critically discuss strategy, maybe a customer service map is a non-confrontational tool to critically discuss customer-centric ideas. Here’s Aibnb’s customer service map (and tweet thread):

Clearly Brian Chesky has the ability to channel the customer.

Unfortunately, while this Airbnb example feels interesting - if you look around at the literature of customer journey maps you quickly realize that they’re not the right tool for changing an executives perspective…

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When I think about the most successful consulting engagements over the last 10 years, it’s the ones where I could help (in some small way) key executives view the world around them in a different light. To help them become slightly more attuned to the reality of customer experience and to be slightly better at putting themselves in the customer’s shoes.

This rarely happens in a single moment, but rather through a gradual ongoing process of introspection, discussion and surprise. The surprise is key to jolting executives out of their established ways of looking and ways of thinking to consider things anew, to look at things with fresh eyes.

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Let’s wrap this up. I want to keep exploring this idea of customer-centric thinking, so here’s some open questions I have right now:

  1. What is the distinction between a customer-centric culture and a single customer-centric executive? How are they different and the same? Is it possible for a bottoms-up approach to being customer-centric or can this only happen top down?
  2. What are the systemic forces inside an organization that prevent executives from being customer-centric? Why is this a rare skill?
  3. What metrics should businesses be measuring around customer experience? In a world where customers look at 3x the competitors they used to, how do you create a customer-first view of the alternatives and options that users have?
  4. How might you build a training program like the disney institute designed to create new perspectives for executives, but designed for URL experiences, not IRL experiences?

I’d love to hear your perspective!

Want to continue the discussion? This idea started over on the Commoncog forums so come join in over there (you’ll need a paid Commoncog membership which I highly recommend anyway).


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This post was written by Tom Critchlow - blogger and independent consultant. Subscribe to join my occassional newsletter: