Best Practices: How to Become a Customer-Centric Company

Three Steps to Creating and Sticking to a Strategic Narrative

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While essentially every company is customer-focused, very few companies are customer-centric.

What's the difference between the two? Tried and true customer-centric companies invest in their customers, expand their offerings to address their needs and desires, and put consumers at the heart of all their decision-making.

And their efforts pay off handsomely. Numerous research studies show that customer-centric companies regularly outperform their competitors. While this seems like the logical road to take, and with it being a critical success factor for savvy CMOs in 2016, there still is a considerable void in the number of companies implementing customer-centric best practices.

So how exactly does a company become customer-centric?

At its heart it involves cultural transformation, driven from the top. It is a shift that requires the alignment of three critical actions: companies must establish a compelling, differentiated strategic narrative; empower employees to join the cultural transformation needed to deliver on the brand promise; and infuse the organization with customer input.

All three are important, but the key element is the first and often most daunting task -- creating a strategic narrative.

To achieve a customer-centric culture, executives must first define and communicate their company's strategic intent: Why does the business exist? What is its value proposition? What does the business want to be known for in the market place?

Creating and sticking to a narrative produces immense power. As individuals, our personal narrative defines us. This is the story we tell ourselves (and others) about who we are. Are we fighters or victims? Are we lucky or hard done by? Our perception of our place and purpose in the world influences how we interpret what happens to us -- and everything we do.

Organizational narratives have the same effect. Beyond any management instruction or policy, narratives influence how employees respond in any given situation -- how and why decisions get made. Without a uniting and compelling narrative to support it, cultural change will fail.

As an example, part of Starbucks' strategic narrative is to be its customers' "third space" -- for customers to consider their go-to places as: 1) home, 2) work and 3) Starbucks. And the company goes to extraordinary lengths to make this narrative real. This is why Starbucks employees will never bother you to buy a beverage, and why millions of consumers are willing to pay a premium for their coffee.

The strategic narrative serves two purposes. The first is a translation to the external marketplace in terms of positioning and differentiation, and the second is the translation to the internal organization outlining the intended customer experience. Leaders who have effectively created a compelling strategic narrative then focus their efforts in three specific areas:

1. Executives need direct interaction with customers. The key to executive buy-in, commitment and active support is first-hand knowledge and understanding of what is delivered to the customer, relative to their needs and desires.

Traditionally, CEOs have received customer feedback second or third hand -- filtered through layers of management, by people who don't want to be the bearers of bad news. Hearing about the good and the bad -- direct from customers -- is a reality check for any executive. It helps create a sense of urgency.

2. All employees need to embody the intended customer experience. A narrative must be cascaded down to every single individual in the organization. Your employees must clearly understand their role in delivering the promise the narrative makes to the end customer. This requires multiple conversations and socialization across all business divisions and at every level, not just for customer support roles.

3. Just say "no" to off-strategy ideas. Excitement abounds in most organizations with ideas and fresh thinking that may lead to new revenue streams. However, it is imperative to recognize that customer-centricity is not a destination but rather a multi-faceted, multi-year journey that will require laser-sharp focus, commitment and investment. Organizations need to challenge off-strategy ideas when they run the risk of diluting the core focus and compromising the long-term commitment to growth through centricity.

The opportunities to drive business growth through customer-centricity are real and exciting. The use of a compelling and differentiated strategic narrative should be the cornerstone of any organization. It opens the door to co-creation and innovation. The integrated intelligence will allow your organization to continuously learn, anticipate and pivot. Once you've defined the narrative for your company or brand, and have senior-level executives push the ethos through, you'll be well on the way to winning the hearts and minds of consumers.

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