Dragging the Conversation Back to the Customer

In a time when the media is painstakingly focusing on the daily misgivings of presidential candidates, fiscal problems in Europe, and the Occupy protests, it's becoming too easy to lose sight of the thing that makes or breaks countless companies today. I'm talking about the customer, of course.

All of us, especially when we obsess about headlines, new technologies, and social media, should drag ourselves back into the crosshairs of how our customers see us. It is customer-centric thinking together with the right technology that will help organizations make the right strategic and transformative choices.

It is amazingly easy to take an old fashioned inside-out approach to implementing new pathways for customers to interact and engage with you, and it is so easy to get it wrong. Several companies have gone astray in this way, only to find that their customers have deserted them, or, at bare minimum, called negative attention to their tactics. Think Groupon. Its haste in trying to capitalize on location-based e-coupons in advance of its public offering has led to many examples of customer frustration as the company tries to create a global offering for something that is intrinsically local. Groupon forgot what Amazon learned over a period of many years, which is that customer trust must be earned over and over again, and that customers know when they are being used. We now trust online purchases at Amazon; Groupon has a way to go.

The point I was trying to make at the recent BAI conference, where I sat on a panel with other CEOs, is that all of the social pathways and new platforms, like tablets and smartphones, are wonderful. Being able to outsource processes using cloud technology is also wonderful. But as with all unintended consequences, wonderful is as wonderful does. If it is not based on a respectful orientation to the intent and context of customer needs, wonderful can become dreadful.

Customer centricity as an idea has been with us for a long time, mostly in the field of one-to-one marketing and CRM. The Wharton School of Business even teaches courses in it. There are conferences that focus on customer experience and customer experience management. What has changed in recent years is that customers are seeing right through targeted advertising and attempts to establish intimacy through marketing. If customer centricity is to be effective, it must grow beyond the domain of the CMO to that of the CFO, COO, and CEO. If you cannot walk the walk of your CRM 1:1 marketing campaign across a 1:1 service fulfillment, 1:1 policy management, 1:1 supply chain, and 1:1 incident management processes, you miss the point of how empowering customer centricity can transform our businesses. Today's customers are way too smart to be sucked in by the shadow play of delightful interactive Facebook pages and cool Droid apps. They want those things if and only if they are part of an integral and ongoing relationship.

A great study from Forrester, "Empower Customers by Transforming Business Processes," available free of charge to visitors to our Web site, proves that they get it. As Forrester analyst Paul Hagen says in the report:

"We have moved beyond the point where companies can compete on product innovation alone. Now most companies establishing centralized customer experience teams are looking at how to organize around the customer rather than around the product. Increasingly, companies are making it an imperative to not only understand expectations that customers have of their brand, but also deliver on those brand expectations through all of the different channels. They realize that company metrics don't match customers' perceptions of the firm, and are trying to fix this disconnect. As customers' power and expectations rise, more companies will differentiate themselves based on this new reality."

Exactly right.

At BAI, I called for a resurgence in customer-centric thinking. We have a lot of choices to make across many industries that are in a crucible of change, some, like payments and mobile carriers, with their own "Arab spring," others, like health care and lending, facing a tsunami of regulation, and still others finding customer loyalty to be suddenly far more elusive and hard-won than ever before. What I can share with you is that amongst our growing customer base, customer-focused projects, the ones that have a customer-centric foundation and end in mind, are the ones that get the most traction with and commitment from senior executives. Customer centricity has evolved from being a marketing intelligence exercise into a lodestone of process transformation that can bring new levels of authenticity and trust to your business. It's also common sense. Let's all keep dragging this important conversation back to the customer.

Alan Trefler is the founder and chief executive officer of Pegasystems. He has frequently presented to international audiences, written for major publications, and consulted extensively in the use of advanced technologies and work automation.

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