The first time I heard the term “customer obsession,” I have to admit I was a little puzzled. After all, “obsess” as a verb is defined as “to preoccupy or fill the mind of (someone) continually, intrusively, and to a troubling extent.” This certainly connotes a negative meaning. So what’s so great about customer obsession, and why are we becoming so, well, obsessed with it?
Customer obsession means that all decisions and processes stem from the needs, desires, and delight of the customer. Taken at face value, this may seem synonymous with its predecessor, “customer experience” (or CX). Think again. This term emerged to intensify the role of the customer to the extent that it is nearly disruptive to the business-as-usual mode of operations. But what really sets apart companies who are embracing customer obsession is that they don’t see it as disruption at all-- they see it as direction.
Skeptics looking for a successful model of customer obsession need not look any further than a familiar household name. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, credits customer obsession as the approach that keeps it thriving and growing. Among the 14 “Leadership Principles” upon which Amazon innovates, operates, and hires, Customer Obsession is listed first. “Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.”
But you don’t have to be an ecommerce behemoth to harness the power of customer-centric thinking. In fact, Forrester Research, in their 2015 report titled “The Operating Model for Customer Obsession” observed that “newer entrants and disruptors with much less operational gravity often deliver better customer experiences — think JetBlue versus United or Amazon.com versus Wal-Mart.” Encouraging, right?
Here are some key points to keep in mind if you’re trying to initiate or reinvent your company based on the idea of customer obsession.
Connect like never before
If you expect to operate successfully with the outside-looking-in perspective that customer obsession demands, then you have to be agile with your data and service channels. Connectivity is key. User interfaces, customer service channels, top-down and bottom-up team communication, and customer feedback cycles must be part of one living, breathing, thriving organism, with customers at the heart.
Break the shackles of perfectionism
With agility comes the need to ditch the notion of perfect solutionsor “bulletproof” projects. In what is quickly becoming an entire market of “early adopters,” companies who offer the newest and the best service will be met with a swift demand for it from their customers. Thus, what separates the men from the boys (or the women from the girls) in today’s customer-obsessed business landscape is not Who is flawless? but Who is first? And while the earliest iterations of any service or product may not be picture perfect, follow-up innovation and meaningfully-established customer relationships can be a quick elixir to erase the memory of past imperfections.
Use customer feedback not as a thermometer, but as a crystal ball
Customer-obsessed companies solicit and gather feedback from customers not to see how well they’re doing, but to see where they’re headed next. Rather than asking themselves “What do we want as a company, and how can customers help us get there?” they ask “What do our customers want, and how can we as a company give it to them? In a head-spinning inversion of roles, customers serve as the functional and collective Chief Executive Officers (CEO’s). In other words, customers set the agenda, the pace, the tone, even the purpose.
Go ahead and reinvent the wheel
What gets in the way of operating on a true level of customer obsession? A company embraces the principle of customer obsession without executing the necessary overhaul (read: reinvention) of their operations. This is where the “intrusive” or “troubling” parts of the definition of obsession come into play. Like Tom Hanks says in the 1992 film A League of Their Own, “It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it.” If you think customer obsession is established by singing a jingle, making a PowerPoint, or having a meeting, you’re wrong. This point begs reiteration from, once again, Amazon’s Leadership Principles, before which it is stated: “Our Leadership Principles aren’t just a pretty inspirational wall hanging.”
Leave the past behind
Whereas manufacturing and logistics may have been the competitive factors of the past, Forrester Research Group, based on the investigation of over 30 companies, has outlined six major “levers” employed by successful customer-centric companies: structure, culture, talent, metrics, processes, and technology. And while some of these may seem like “soft” functions or measures of company success, in the Age of the Customer, they’re the new and improved gluten-free bread and butter of company success.
In today’s ever-competitive market, customer obsession is more than just a buzzword-- it’s the modern M.O. (Mode of Operation). And it’s no wonder: According to Bain & Company, a 5% increase in customer retention can increase profits by 25% to 95%. Putting the customers themselves in a leadership role for your company means turning operations upside down and then communicating and adapting like never before.
Are you up for the challenge?