You Want To Put Your Customer Where?

One of the things we’re all learning to say nowadays is that “we’re putting the customer at the center of our company”. The idea is that we’ve changed our thinking; where previously we were focused on operational excellence we’re now all about customer needs. We’re progressive, a little bit subversive even, and driven by empathy. But it makes two big assumptions: The first is that we get to decide where customers should be, not them. The second is that our centers are the most important and desirable places to be. Which, to me, feels like nothing really has changed in our thinking. We’re using old metaphors in a new world, and they’re stopping us from becoming truly effective in it. We need new metaphors, not new ways of using old ones.

In the days before the internet became mainstream, customers had little more than corporate advertising to inform them and influence their purchasing decisions. They were limited, relatively speaking, to mass, passive consumption. Digital technologies were too expensive, too specialized and too limited for home use by anyone other than enthusiasts. Companies really did rule the roost and had little incentive to engage with consumers, focusing instead on operational excellence, making sure their insides were working, that their center was strong. Their goal was profit and growth. Their hero was Jack Welch at GE.

Decades later, most CEOs still prioritize profit and growth over anything else and most companies still pick cost reduction as their first operational lever to pull, process improvement as the second, and innovation as a rather distant third from the perspectives of sequence, budget, and executive sponsorship. So you would think that putting the customer at the center of the company is pretty disruptive.

But the problem is that, as consumers, we’re not living in that old world any more. We’re living in a new world where we’re all connected and we have masses of information and we can block adverts and instead read user reviews or watch the latest unboxing video. We are more autonomous, more situationally aware, more influential and more empowered, We can run our own businesses with worldwide reach and no infrastructure. The company is no longer all powerful. It now often seems bloated and slow, struggling to keep up despite all those cost reductions.

And there’s another thing. Has anyone actually ever asked customers if they want to be put at the center of our companies? There are no consumer trend reports I know of which suggest anything close to that. If anything, the evidence points in the opposite direction, that customers are becoming  less loyal and less trusting than before as one company after another fails to protect their data or anticipate their needs or uphold their values.

That’s not to say that customers don’t want their companies to be connected. They do, and in fact they’ll quickly choose another provider if you’re not. And when they do want to buy something or be served or have their questions answered, they want individual, personal attention wherever they are, and they don’t want to wait. But until then they want you to put yourselves at their edge, on their periphery, and wait quietly until they need you.

So when we talk about putting the customer at the center of our companies, we’re using the old thinking, the wrong metaphor. To paraphrase Einstein, we’re trying to solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. It keeps us looking inwards, towards the center, as if the center is where the important things happen. But in the connected world the company’s internal hierarchy is irrelevant. Everything that is actually important to our business success and growth, namely our customers, our partners, and our communities, is on the outside. So it’s time for us to create and use new metaphors. We need to learn how to be part of networks which we do not control or own. We need to spend less time thinking like companies and more time like our customers. Which means we need to spend more time focused on the edges, on the outside. After all, as customers, as individuals, as families and as communities, we’re all already there.