Is customer centricity a dirty word?

You’ve got to love jargon. And there’s been some mainstays for a few years now in the business world. Digital transformation anyone? Or how about corporate synergy, net-new, or move the needle?

Personally, my guilty pleasure is ‘utility’ – although it’s a cracker of a word, and I’ll continue to trot this out.

However, ‘customer centricity’ is the phrase that’s really starting to irk me - and not because I disagree with the sentiment of it, or its importance. But because it’s so flipping obvious. It’s a no-brainer and should be at the forefront of thinking and business decision making.

One of the better definitions of customer centricity comes from Harvard Business School’s Ranjay Gulati:

The catalyst for brand love is ensuring customers are at your core.

The catalyst for brand love is ensuring customers are at your core.

“Becoming customer-centric means looking at an enterprise from the outside-in rather than the inside-out — that is, through the lens of the customer rather than the producer. It’s about understanding what problems customers face in their lives and then providing mutually advantageous solutions,” Gulati said.

I wholeheartedly agree with this, but it’s also why I’m starting to roll my eyes when I hear it bandied around with corporate oblivion.

To be honest, I‘d suggest that customer centricity is still far more aspirational than tangible. And until it’s embedded? in your organisation’s DNA – strategy, planning, service and value proposition delivery – that’s unfortunately where it’s likely to stay. 

How many times have you seen organisations appear to forget the central tenant of centricity when they work it into a strategy: it’s about the customer and their needs, not you or your business.

To be clear, when you ask the marketing team – at the end of the process – to find a compelling way to ‘sell’ the value and benefits of a product, which was primarily designed to enhance margin, you’re not operating with customers at your core.

Smart Company’s cheat sheet is a fairly succinct – albeit tongue in cheek – way to assess where you sit on the centricity fence:

  • I know I HAVE customers. Yay, you. You’ve poked your head up out of the weeds and realised there are people out there who buy things from you;

  • I think ABOUT my customers. And you’re on the right track. Thinking about what the people who buy things from you might want and need is the “jump to the left” you need; or

  • I think LIKE my customers. Give yourself a star. You’ve arrived at the promised land and are now happily channelling your customer’s inner-most desires.

This then begs the question of “how do we know what our customers think?” – which is a question I was asked at a presentation recently.


To say I was surprised is an understatement.  

My response was simple: “Ask them”.

Cue blank stare, and the need to elaborate.

Now I’m willing to bet this organisation may have customer centricity, brand love, or words to that effect detailed as a core strategic pillar.

But to be frank, if you're solely looking at data, NPS or other survey results, you are not living the customer-centric ethos.

You cannot overstate the value and insight that you derive from sitting in a room with your customers, potential customers, and former customers.

Talk to them. Walk in their shoes.

Understand what you do well, and badly, from their perspective. Unpack their needs, emotional triggers and pain points.

We've done a multitude of these sessions, and the nuggets that come out of them blow people away. Here are a few verbatim examples (with the brands involved removed):

  • “We thought we were dealing with a competitor.” (Insight: You need to build brand trust, awareness, and familiarity urgently.)

  • “We are searching for different things to what X is selling”. (Insight: your paid spend is inefficient at best, and wasted at worst.)

  • "Your site is confusing, and our needs weren't met.” (Insight: Fix your architecture, map content to the buyer journey, and personalise the experience. Be helpful, start ‘guiding’, and stop yelling.)

  • "The customer experience doesn't resonate with us – from a millennial.” (Insight: marketing needs to be tailored to specific segments, and the younger generation expects to be rewarded.)

  • “We want to be part of a community with shared values.” (Build and nurture an online ‘family’. Delight, connect and retain customers.)

  • “We wanted to hear from real people about their experience.” (Storytelling drives trust, and ultimately sales. People believe ‘people like them’, not corporates.)

Too often, I suspect we forget the importance of talking to people who buy our products and services.

Great organisations don’t forget. If you look at marketing machines like Bunnings, Nike, GE and Warby Parker, they all have a deep understanding of their customer and delivering what they need.

They listen and act. And when you boil it down, that’s all that really matters.

It’s nonsensical developing a marketing strategy until you understand your audience.

Make it your 2019 mission to truly understand your customer, and to exceed their expectations. And feel free to use the jargon you love – utility anyone? – as long as it’s what your customers most want to hear.

Matt Allison is the Managing Director of Ubiquity Lab. Click here to sign up to our monthly EDM, or here to follow us on LinkedIn.

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