Those of us in business often latch onto words and phrases as the latest “bright and shiny objects” to share with others. While instilling new thinking is great, the downside of this tendency centers on the misuse and misunderstanding of those catchy phrases.
Think of how often we hear “digital transformation,” or “customer-obsessed” (and the alternatively worded “customer-centric”) bandied about. What do those terms mean? Really mean?
Through overuse and misuse, they have become almost meaningless. And that is too bad because, while relatively new terms in our collective vernacular, each addresses what companies need to be tackling if they want to thrive.
As a result, it’s valuable to revisit what is meant by being “customer-obsessed.” First, it does NOT mean giving away the proverbial store, of sacrificing the pursuit of profits from customer relationships.
Second, being customer-obsessed should not mean becoming merely reactive to what customers say they want or do not want. Granted, if you just offer the products and services that customers say that they want, you likely will gain some positive performance improvements in adoption and satisfaction, but you will miss the opportunity to disruptively lead. Why? Because a truly customer-obsessed company goes beyond the expressed desires and wants of customers to come up with what those customers have not even imagined is possible.
As Steve Jobs famously observed, customers would not have come up with Apple’s greatest successes, such as the iPhone, if the company merely relied on marketing research that tracks what customers say they want. After all, consumers had not yet imagined what a hybrid mobile phone-pocket computer could be. But Apple’s product development folks did. What is missing from this story, however, is that Apple has instilled an ethos to deeply understand its customers and then apply those insights to come up with what delights in insanely great ways.
Some term this being “anticipatory,” but even that term falls short. Instead, I suggest we call it applied empathy because—when done well—it involves incorporating a nuanced understanding of target customers into the development and refinement of products, services and touchpoints that delight across the customer lifecycle.
In other words, there is still value to the now-maligned idea of being product-driven. But it is a new breed of product-driven companies that are succeeding today and poised to make even greater gains tomorrow. These winners carefully tamp down the lure of ego-driven product centricity, i.e. “We know better than those stupid consumers.” Instead, these companies rigorously pursue applied empathy to grasp the expressed AND non-articulated customer pain points, wants, desires and motivations, and then use those insights as catalysts to come up with what will delight those customers in fundamental and unexpected ways.
Easy to describe, much more difficult to do. Gaining and sharing meaningful customer insights isn’t an easy task. And learning to apply those insights to create delightful experiences across the customer lifecycle at scale requires orchestrating innovative marketing research and design thinking with the smart use of technology and data flows, plus the admittedly touchy-feely aspects of company culture, mindset, and collective will.
Companies exhibiting those combined traits and behaviors—think Airbnb, Warby Parker, and Slack—are examples of this new disruptive leadership. And going hand in hand with their ability to disrupt is the fact that they are truly customer-obsessed. They go beyond knowing their customers to understanding them.
Image Credit: Getty Images #624065582 (licensed by the author)
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Blake Park is a Managing Director at Accenture Interactive and an entrepreneur recognized for effectively combining thinking with doing. Extensive experience integrating marketing vehicles (digital, advertising, social, content, CRM) to build brands and generate rapid results for large companies and startups. Adept at tackling strategic blind spots. Globally attuned.