Are you as customer-centric as you think you are? 

5 min.

Are you really customer-centric? 

Customer-centricity is a key part of my keynotes. It’s quite simply impossible to future-proof your company nowadays without putting the customer front and center. Nevertheless, companies often tell me that I don’t need to talk to them about customer-centricity, because they already know about it, they already do it. “Don’t worry Rik, we already treat our customers like our best friends.” I would love to believe that, I really would, and in some cases it might even be true, but in most cases it’s not – despite the company’s best intentions. Let’s do a quick test. How do you talk about your customers? Do you use phrases like: hunting customers; locking customers in; keeping customers happy (at minimum cost); maximizing the value of customers? If you do, you might want to take a second look, because I for one don’t want to be your best friend if you treat me like that. 

By definition, your company can’t treat customers like they are your best friend. You don’t charge your best friends for what you do for them. Customer-centricity is not about friendship; it’s about exceeding the terms of engagement. 

The problem often lies in a misunderstanding of the term, which may indicate the need for new terminology without the old connotations. Although new terminology tends to be rejected, I think we need to find a way to clean the existing terminology that has been tainted by the definitions of the old world. 

Think about what you call the people who purchase your goods or services: do you call them customers or consumers? How does the word you use influence how you see that person? For me, when we use the word customer, we tend to think of the transaction: that person is paying for that good or service. The word consumer is somewhat broader, but it still reduces the person to a being that consumes and nothing more. Maybe we should just talk about people, because that’s what we are. We’re not defined by a single instant, such as one in which we make a purchase; we’re defined by millions of instances that make us all unique.

So I’m still going to use the words customer and consumer – we can’t just sweep all vocabulary aside – but I want to be clear that what I mean is something more.

Empowered people give and receive

Perhaps we could label what I mean with the phrase empowered people: people who buy your product/service, use your app, act as your sensors, network, infrastructure and so much more. Empowered people are not just people who made a purchase, they are a part of what you do. They are empowered because they choose to use your application and they get something out of using it. They are empowered because they simultaneously contribute to your platform by sharing their data.

When we open an app like Waze, data is gathered from us. Waze didn’t invest in setting up new sensors, they used what already existed: us and our smartphones. Whenever we use the app, we activate our sensor and share our location. Spotify works on a similar model, but instead of location they collect data about our music tastes. They can know what kind of mood we’re in thanks to the type of music we’re listening to. You’d never share your location with Spotify (unless they partnered with Waze) because there’s no point. If you can’t see the benefit in sharing your data, you won’t do it. 

When we use an app like Spotify or Waze, we share our data in return for the use of the platform. We benefit by being able to use the platform and they benefit by being able to gather our data. In turn, our data can be used to make the platform better for us. It can also be improved for use by other companies.

Boosting the power of connection 

As human beings, we are connected. We’re connected digitally but, and sometimes we forget this, we are also connected with other humans. When we use a platform, we not only offer the platform our data, we also offer them our connections. By empowering people on your platform, most importantly giving them something valuable in return, you will find that you save on other areas of investment. Empowered people become your infrastructure, your quality controllers, your marketing and sales departments and so on. In short, the platform and the user benefit from each other. 

The users of your platform can be used as a powerful tool, but beware of abusing them. People boost our platform because they feel empowered and engaged and, most importantly, because they want to be involved. That’s the crux. In the old world, when companies thought about customer engagement, all they could see were the dollar signs rolling up and up and up. Customer engagement used to be a costly endeavor. However, the digital world has once again given us the tools to overcome this hurdle. The more you engage your customer in the digital space, the more they will want to be your infrastructure, your sensors, your marketing representatives.

By users for users

A good example of this is user-generated content. On Spotify, anyone can share their music with other people and grow their community. In other words, individuals can share their music on the same platform as renowned names such as Prince. Wouldn’t you feel empowered? By allowing people to upload their own content, you are also creating more content, which in turn leads to more data, more marketing, a better platform and more engagement. When it comes down to basics, the more you scale empowering people, the less expensive it will become. 

This is crucial; it’s the economic rationale of an ecosystem. The more you scale, the lower the costs. You just need to get the flywheel turning. And to get the flywheel turning, you need to speak to the CUSTOMER.

A brief reminder 

C connected, confused

U urban, unbalanced, unsatisfied, uncertain

S self-centered, sympathetic, solidarity, sustainability

T tribal, tempted

O on demand, overwhelmed

M mindful, mind full

E ethical, ecological, engaged, empowered

R radical

When Uber entered the market, their goal was not to disrupt existing industries. They wanted to use the power of an empowered customer. They wanted to make them a part of the company and they used the advent of smartphones and apps to do that. If you look at many of the big companies that we label disruptors – Spotify, Amazon, Uber, Airbnb – we can see that their breakthrough came around 2010-2012. They were the first ones to get moving in the new space, thus disrupting companies that could have done the same but didn’t see it coming. Their goal was the customer, a person who could serve them in more ways than just as buyers of their product/service. Their aim was to know their customer as well as possible, because the better they knew them, the better they could serve them and the more they would engage them. 

That’s why I don’t like the term disruption. It’s not about disruption, but rather about tapping into untapped potential.

The digital space added a new dimension to our space, just like the Dutch artist Escher (1898-1972) does in his paintings. In his work, we can get lost in the staircases which seem to be going up yet down. And companies have been doing the same thing. Digital has given us the power to fly – we no longer need to travel by road, or find a route that bypasses those towering mountains in front of us. We have the power to fly over those mountains, soaring among the clouds and looking at the landscape spread out around us. What are our customers’ frustrations? How can we tap into them and create something valuable? Every company can become an ecosystem if you can just find that untapped potential.

Tap into that potential 

Ecosystems are capable of solving society’s complex problems, tapping into existing potential in the non-digital world and responding to the individual. Ecosystems can look very different, but underneath they all have the same building blocks: people. If people are unwilling to share their data with your ecosystem, your ecosystem won’t work. The question is thus: in what situations, when and why, would people be willing to share their data?