Is Your Organisation Genuinely Customer-Centric?

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All organisations that develop products and services do so with one intention at the core — to fulfil a need or want their customers have and to improve their lives and livelihoods continuously. They are determined to achieve this by keeping the customer’s needs at the heart of the entire product delivery process. This is the mission of every organisation; this is the aspiration of every CEO; this is the aim of every senior leader, and this is the slogan of every marketing team.

However, is it really the case with every organisation? Do they treat the customer’s needs and behaviours as the ultimate driver of their product development roadmap, delivery strategy and daily operation plans? Do they actually choose their underlying technology and processes as the most suitable means to enable them to deliver what their customers have asked for? How prepared are they to face sudden changes in market conditions and social circumstances and to adapt their roadmap accordingly? Put, how many of these organisations really practise being customer-centric?

Being customer-centric is easier said than done. It needs to start with a genuine intent at the top level and cascade across the entire organisation, down to the most junior employee. It needs to be part of the DNA of every organisational role, irrespective of whether that role deals with customers directly or not. It also needs to be at the centre of every decision made and every action performed.

Below is a collection of small but practical and effective sets of actions that could be implemented across four different facets of an organisation in order to make that organisation more customer-centric. During my career, I have been a part of organisations that have become highly successful as a direct result of these actions. If your organisation cannot relate to most, or any, of them, it might be a good idea to pick something simple and easy to implement and begin to make small but incremental changes to become more customer-centric over time.

FIRST — Be obsessed with knowing your customers

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  • Reach out to your customers regularly to explore what they feel when they use your products and services. Studying a customer’s emotional state while engaging with your organisation is a powerful way to identify what drives your customer to, or away from your organisation and its products and services.
  • Provide a variety of ways for both current and potential customers to reach out to your organisation. This will not only increase the chances of getting more frequent customer feedback but also will improve the quality of that feedback, with an increased variety of circumstances and customer habits being covered as a result.
  • Include no more than three questions in your feedback forms and/or online customer surveys. Keep the questions open-ended and invite the customer to add more detail if they choose to.
  • Acknowledge and respond to customer feedback whenever it is practicable and if the customer has given their consent to do so. This will make them feel heard and valued and, more importantly, will encourage customers to be more forthcoming with future feedback.
  • Listen to what they have to say with genuine interest and empathy and ask the right questions to explore the unsaid¹. Apply this practice during every personal interaction with your customers, such as support calls, individual interviews and group workshops.
  • Empower your customers in every way possible to express what they actually desire during the requirement exploration phase. Provide them with prototypes that are created with equal care and diligence so that the benefits and challenges to users are presented in an unbiased manner.

SECOND — Prioritise work based on the actual value delivered to the customer

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  • Every requirement that has been brought to your organisation’s attention must come through the front door and be recorded in a central product feature backlog visible to all stakeholders. It is also vital to articulate the envisaged benefits and as much of the intended customer demographics as it is ethically possible to capture.
  • Use a variety of prioritisation techniques² to assess the delivery urgency, business value, potential opportunities, cost of not delivering and other types of risk associated with each requirement. Do not proceed to invest further effort, time and money into any requirement unless this process is properly completed.
  • Keep individual opinions, anecdotal evidence, emotions and personal preferences out of the way during the prioritisation phase. Make decisions based on the business case supported by actual customer and market research data.
  • Iterate this process frequently and regularly to assess if your organisation is continuing to spend its valuable resources on products and services that matter to your customers.

THIRD — Create a solution that benefits the customer

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  • Map³ out the requirements into individual user steps to create a customer experience journey. Highlight the stress points of potential customers’ emotional states associated with each step. Create all possible journeys your intended customers could experience while interacting with the product or service.
  • Consider a variety of options to achieve and deliver each user step. These could vary from an action as simple as modifying an existing business process currently in place to a more complicated project involving the development of a new software application.
  • Embrace a genuine intent to identify the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) under current circumstances that will allow your organisation to deliver a working product or a service that will fulfil the customer’s requirements to the level of quality they expect.
  • Build your products and services, keeping the security of your dependent systems, your customers’ rights to privacy and protection of their personal details and ethical standards in mind from the ground up and not as a set of enhancements you might implement at a later date.

FINALLY — Align every process, tool, ceremony and system to deliver what the customer wants

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  • Select your development tools and formulate work management processes carefully, with the objective of optimising the delivery of working products and services for your customers.
  • Conduct meetings and other agile ceremonies with the clear intention of: making the requirements and solutions clearly understood by everyone; removing impediments that could prevent smooth delivery; supporting each other to quickly deliver what the customers want; creating a more transparent workflow to identify risks and other bottlenecks; and creating a safe and motivating working environment that encourages people to try new ideas and improve every day.
  • Define a clear iteration plan to enable your organisation to deliver the MVP as quickly and reliably as possible.
  • Make every individual and every team within the organisation aware of all new products and services being built, their interdependencies within existing products and services and how they might impact each other. Encourage and create a safe environment for people to speak up whenever they notice something that could jeopardise delivery or put current products at risk.
  • Create a culture where everyone in the organisation takes any delays or risks to delivery extremely seriously and works towards identifying them early and working through to either mitigate or eliminate them.
  • Showcase, demonstrate and trial prototypes and working models of products frequently, with the genuine intent of getting first-hand feedback. This feedback could be used to further refine products already in development or pushed through the front-door that was discussed earlier for formal review and prioritisation of future development work.
  • Train and empower every person within the organisation to understand the challenges faced by customers and work with them to not only have issues resolved, but also to explore ways to improve current products and services in the future.
  • Clearly define measurements of success around aspects such as organisational culture, quality of the products and services, the effectiveness of processes in place and, most importantly, how people within the organisation feel and behave. Share the results regularly with your teams to constantly learn and improve.

Anti-patterns to being customer-centric

Well-established organisations that have traditionally been system-centric or procedure-centric, nowadays find their market dominance being challenged by new start-up organisations that are lean and have a more customer-centric approach. What is even more worrying, sometimes these traditional organisations have fallen into the trap of believing that they have transitioned into being a customer-centric organisation by ‘implementing’ a few activities prescribed in textbooks.

However, they continue to be plagued by an ever-increasing number of customer complaints, dwindling numbers of customers, taking too long to deliver working products to the market and constant budget blowouts.

If you are part of such an organisation, look out for the Red Flags below that may be contributing to drive your organisation to its knees.

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  • Customer feedback forms and online market surveys generally include a variety of distracting questions and require a considerable amount of time and effort for customers to complete.
  • Customer surveys or interviews are done as just another nice-to-do activity and not with a genuine intent to hear what the customer has to say or take that feedback on board seriously to shape future product development strategies.
  • Prototype reviews are conducted using a combination of superior and inferior models, often with a hidden agenda to force the customer down an already chosen solution path. Products forced upon customers in this manner tend to have a very short shelf life, only to be replaced by a more versatile product from your competitor.
  • Your teams are busy doing stuff that did not come through the front-door, without its business value and customer benefits being clearly articulated, due to an influential person within the organisation wanting that stuff done as a priority.
  • Priority calls on customer requirements are made hastily, involving emotions and anecdotal evidence, or based on how it feels.
  • Your organisation displays a constant appetite for developing gold-plated products, either due to teams not having a clear iteration plan or feeling unsafe to deliver anything less than a ‘perfect’ product.
  • Your Product Strategists demonstrate a habit of creating solutions for ghosts, with the hope that one day customers might want to start using them.
  • Your teams harbour a mentality and a culture of — we’ve taken this long to get to this point, what difference will it make even if take another couple of weeks?
  • Meetings, ceremonies, tools and processes are created and formulated to place more steps in the delivery process, adding unnecessarily complicated layers and stifling the progress of work.
  • Some individuals and teams are seemingly on a mission to find faults and leave delivery teams on their own to figure out solutions for themselves rather than collaborating with each other to work towards a solution.
  • Technology options have been pre-selected and may not be suitable for developing a solution that suits customer requirements easily and quickly. They tend to be clunky and complicated, making the final solution challenging to deliver, complicated to use and difficult to scale and maintain.
  • Agile is considered just another fancy term that some people preach. No-one within the organisation has a passion to practise its values and principles and make delivering value to customers a priority, the delivery process more productive and learning a continuous activity.
  • Development of people (in terms of skills, collaboration and communication) is left up to individual employees. Business domain and product-related training are treated as nice-to-have or on-the-job learning activities.
  • Products are not showcased regularly and whenever showcasing is conducted, it is mostly done using PowerPoint presentations and pre-recorded videos. They are not the increments towards working products, such as insights obtained from market data research, wireframes of a proposed product feature, or working software operated in actual production-like operating environments.
  • Team members struggle to explain the work that needs to be done and find it difficult to get to know what other team members are working on and the impact they might have on each other’s delivery. This is often identified when the product is about to be released to the market, or worse, after releasing it to the market.
  • Measurements of delivery success are not identified or defined upfront and often become lost in translation during the reporting phase. The teams that worked on the products do not get an opportunity to reflect on the work they did and improve their working methods in the future.

Whether your organisation is commercial, governmental, or not-for-profit, the products and services it provides must cater to the intended customer’s requirements. This is the reason why every organisation is created and, more importantly, continues to exist. If customers decide to desert the organisation and the products it offers, one has to ask the hard question: ‘who is going to pay our bills?

Further Reading

1 — Explore this link to access a collection of podcasts on Deep Listening.

2 — Here is a list of links you can follow to learn more on Requirement Prioritisation Techniques.

3 — Follow this link for further read about Customer Journey Mapping and User Experience Mapping.

4 — Follow this link to learn more about Agile Values and Principles.

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