Shock the System with a Dose of Customer-Centricity

John Rossman

An Agile Approach to Developing Customer-Centricity

Warren Buffett told me then that my most important job was to guard against the “ABC” risks of decay that all very large organizations face: arrogance, bureaucracy, and complacency — Mark Suzman, CEO of the Gates Foundation

Sometimes your team, company, or business needs a jolt. It’s not time to panic, business might actually be good, but there are warning signs all around. Customer retention is slipping. You are losing deals you used to win. Discounting is rampant. Employees are more concerned about “optics” than getting results. The business is not hitting aggressive revenue growth projections, but maybe you make P&L budget by cutting costs and budgets. These are warning signs for adjustments, not restructuring.

How do we put a jolt of added energy, urgency, accountability, and lasting improvements to our business by nudging your culture?

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Look no further than your customers for both answers and inspiration — because your customers might have some grumpy faces!

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Customer-centricity puts the customer at the center of everything your business does. When done right, customer-centricity cuts through the lies we tell ourselves about our lackluster value proposition & business results, delivers insights on improvements and innovations, creates focused urgency to fix and improve service today, and focuses our attention on serving others instead of being self-serving. It cuts across the organization structure, seniority, and bureaucracy. Customer-centricity is the prescription for the aforementioned “ABC risks of corporate decay.”

In a nutshell, injecting and amping up your team’s customer-centricity is like a cross-fit course to better fitness for your business.

when done right, customer-centricity cuts through the lies we tell ourselves about our lackluster value proposition & business results

No More Transformations

Raise your hand if you want another “enterprise transformation program?” Any takers?

One of the features of inspiring and amping-up customer-centricity is that the journey doesn’t need to be an enterprise transformation program. With a savvy strategy, a lightweight approach, and your leadership, this can be conducted as an organic approach to turning the ship around.

What’s your plan for building customer-centricity? If your goal is to lead and influence others to build an organization that is “customer-centric,” how do you go about it? There are options & choices and many schools of thought, but here’s an agile approach to building the journey to customer-centricity.

1. Define What Customer-Centricity Is for Your Organization

Explore what “customer centricity” means for your team or business.

  1. What are examples and stories where customer centricity is not demonstrated today?  Write these out — what was the situation?  How did decisions get made? How did decisions and priorities get set?  Why weren’t we customer-centric at this moment? What might be different if you were “customer-centric?” Only by evaluating specific examples of how we act today will you discover your definition
  2. Develop short stories of the future – clear examples taking place in the future where being customer-centricity leads to different decisions or actions.  What is the scenario?  How did it result in a better customer experience?  How were discussions, decisions, and priorities different because you were customer-centric?
  3. Draft rules, guidelines, or goals on customer centricity.  Don’t make them official – just try writing them out and try them on for a while.  Etch them in jello.  Find opportunities to use the guidelines in actual decisions or moments of truth.  In a couple of months, having tried to use them, evaluate what your plan should be.
    An example guideline might be, “We are committed to understanding the root cause of 90% of all customer contacts.  We will pursue correcting these factors regardless of organizational boundaries (including external to our company).”

With this definition, write out three to five examples of where you are not customer-centric today and three to five examples of what the future state of customer-centricity might look like — small stories showing what the situation might be and how a customer-centric strategy led to different options and decisions.  Make these stories memorable and powerful.  These are critical exercises to probe and explore your ambition for customer centricity and highlight the gap to be covered.  Understanding your current state, your “point A,” and your future state — your “point B,” helps bring to life what the gap and journey need to be.

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  1. Build Principles to Shape Behaviors

Let’s talk tenets, principles, and “rules of the road” — pick the term which is right for you.  What’s important is discussing and developing the contrasting and aspirational guidelines or “fundamental truths” serving as the foundation for how we act in the future.  Here’s a small set of customer-centric principles:

  • Effortless at Every Moment — We aspire to make education, discovery, use, maintenance, and service of our product/service effortless for the customer at every moment of their customer journey.  We have a sharp eye for spotting friction in the customer journey and work to eliminate the friction, even if this friction is beyond our direct control.
  • Customer Metrics — We strive to have facts and metrics at the granular customer experience level to drive an effortless customer experience for every customer at every moment.  We are always working to improve, innovate and use metrics and SLAs to improve the customer experience.
  • Integrate Our Ecosystem — We will proactively support and include the ecosystem in our mission of customer-centricity.  Ideas can come from anywhere.  We will co-invest and creatively invest in helping the ecosystem support our mission of customer-centricity.
  • Customer CentricityEverywhere — Every process, function, team, and role in our organization plays a role in customer-centricity and should have an explicit understanding, definition, goals, metrics, and SLA’s written and aligned to these customer-centricity principles and pursuits.
  • Integrated into the Employee Experience — We will integrate customer-centricity and the use of these principles in every phase and aspect of employee engagement — interviewing, hiring, training, reviews, promotions, mentoring, etc.

How many principles do you need? One principle can’t create the perspective and leaves too much open for interpretation. A well-intentioned principle like “we will always put the customer first” is just not strong enough to create change. There is too much evaluation required on how or when we put “the customer first” or what that means. The above set of principles for customer centricity might be suitable as a set, but starting with a lot of options creates better conversation and contrast leading to the right set for you. 

  1. Devise Mechanisms  — How We Live the Principles

How do you live your principles? Wouldn’t it be great if we had a set of tools, habits, and practices to help put the principles into action and to apply them appropriately and consistently? Defining, training, and using a consistent set of mechanisms to live your customer-centric principles is the daily practice of enacting customer-centricity and making it part of our culture. What might a couple of mechanisms be — so that we can get a taste? 

  • The Empty Chair —  put an empty chair in your meetings in a very visible manner.  This chair represents that your customer cannot be there to explain or argue, so it’s up to each of us to understand and represent the customer.
  • Voice of the Customer — a voice of the customer program brings together stakeholders to solve a customer-impacting issue that, for some reason, is not being addressed in the organization.  Often the customer service organization runs this program, and the goals always remain the same — get to the root cause and take fast impact on the topic. 
  • Start with the Customer Super Power —  in any proposal or potential investment you might evaluate, start with and be specific about the specific benefits and use cases, the superpowers being brought to your customer. Try to articulate how you would measure the adoption and impact of this feature. List out current and specific friction points — be specific, not generic. 

Mechanisms need not be fancy or complex but do need to be defined, written, trained, and measured. They need to be used as a matter of habit. Senior leaders need to not just “attend” but lead and insist on doing these in a high-quality manner. Which transitions to the ultimate factor, either the accelerator or the decelerator, in creating this change — leadership.

  1. Leadership — Always the Catalyst

Wikipedia defines “leadership” as 

Leadership is both a research area, and a practical skill encompassing the ability of an individual, group or organization to “lead,” influence, or guide other individuals, teams, or entire organizations. U.S. academic environments define leadership as “a process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task

Leadership is a skill and a process with the impact being that it influences others, for good or bad. If the organization is not organically customer-centric, then it’s likely that key leaders will need to add skills supported by processes to enhance their capability.

  1. Experiments to Test These Elements

It’s natural for executives to request certainty on the plan, the solution, and the payback. Instead of approaching with a waterfall-oriented plan, leverage an AGILE methodology or approach. Create a hypothesis about implementing the principles and mechanisms, and then find fast ways to test the implementation and the concepts. Refine and repeat. As you gain certainty on the “inputs” to implementing customer-centricity and refine the communication points, the “outputs” will start to become apparent and measurable. Perhaps you train teams in the principles and mechanisms. Perhaps you embed “change agents” in teams to be the experts on incorporating these practices. Perhaps there are specific customer friction points or projects where a customer-centric focus can demonstrate the power of starting with the customer and working backward. There are many other implementation approaches. In any scenario – test, measure, learn, adjust and iterate to scale.

Actions to Take

Write or draw your plan and logic map for becoming customer-centric.  Incorporate some of the approaches outlined here, or maybe you don’t use the concepts at all!  Just think it through and write it down in some manner.  Review and defend your approach to someone else — someone who will actually press you for details, ask questions and bring ideas to you. Be fixed on your vision but flexible on the means and timing. Test, measure, learn, adjust and iterate to scale — be agile on your journey to customer-centricity. 

Bon voyage!


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