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Jerome Berrard

Another way to ask the question: what makes individuals and organizations successful with their customers? Do those individuals and organizations display a posture, or do they focus on customer-centric policies and strategy implementation?


The immediate answer might be obviously both strategy and posture. Let’s think for a minute of a hospitality chain that don’t have a strategy focused on customer and don’t undertake customer-centric courses of action. Such a company would surely fail to act customer-centric, and their employees would certainly not focus on customer satisfaction.

Let’s take another example: a logistics and parcel delivery company can run a customer-centric policy and take strategic decisions for that. Implementing a parcel tracking service is one of those decisions. Being conscious that customers wish to know in real time where their parcel is and precisely when it will be delivered, the first logistics company to offer a parcel delivery tracking service had a real competitive edge. Likewise, electronic commerce operators that first offered a parcel tracking service got a competitive advantage. However, such tracking service would have had no effect on customer satisfaction if it had been ill-conceived, hard to access or unreliable. To satisfy their customers, a successful company shall listen to their expectations and convert those into a suitable offer. That’s what a customer-centric posture is all about: listening to what’s expected, decoding underlying needs, and finally formulating an offer.

What comes first between a customer-centric posture and a customer-centric strategy? Is that important that one comes before the other to be customer oriented in practice?

Let’s imagine a hotel chain manager briefing his or her team explaining “our target is to improve our meeting room profitability because they are not occupied enough”. Or “we have a clear energy and waste saving strategy and to succeed with it, we all must ensure that our guests take showers and not bath, that they limit the use of towels and that we reduce lighting level”.  It would not be obvious that this manager talks about a customer-centric strategy? In fact, hospitality business is typically figure-orientated. A customer-centric policy is traditionally pointless because customer-centricity – or guest-centricity as they’d say – is rooted in their DNA, in the behavior and posture of their staff and managers.

Therefore, it is more effective to first implement a customer-centric attitude that will diffuse in the employees’ behaviors and mindsets before implementing policies and strategies built around the customer.

A customer-centric attitude is a skill and can be developed. But, it’s only effective to acquire customer-centric techniques, for instance with a training program, when the customer-centric mindset is ready first.

Customer centricity is referred to as a soft skill, combining behavioral, communicational and social abilities. Those abilities are primarily encrypted in the social group to which we belong. At the scale of nations, there are countries with are very much customer-orientated and countries less so. Taking about customer centricity, the country that comes top of mind is Japan. One should have travelled on a train in Japan, stayed overnight in a traditional inn or even sent or received a parcel with a Japanese logistics service to fully understand the meaning of “Customer is King”. It is correct that many Japanese companies have customer-centric strategies in place. Yet the unvarnished reality is that a Japanese worker will always put customer on top of his priorities, above individual and family considerations, even when there is no customer-centric corporate strategy in place. Japan’s sociocultural context is conducive to customer-centric behaviors in practice.

In European sociocultural contexts, customer-centric postures are less innate. For instance, a Japanese employee who is asked something by a customer outside of his individual responsibility but within his company’s purview will never think that « sorry but I am not the person in charge » is a possible answer. In fact, such words would never run through his mind at all. A Japanese employee didn’t learn how to reply from his company’s policy book. Instead he knows it from the implied context of the Japanese community he lives in. In Europe, things are totally different. It takes a European employee to reply “leave it with me, I’ll take care and return to you soon” to learn the skill, and even better to acquire the mindset.

If customer-centric posture is a mindset before all else, how to acquire it?

We can acquire a mindset by modifying our behavioral preferences. Those preferences – or tendencies – are the result of a process in which our brain will filter information flowing in from outside of us by selecting pieces of information based on our preferences and centres of interest, interpreting them with the filter of our experiences, our beliefs and values, and finally modifying reality by distorting it with mind-reading, causal relations and assumptions. NLP, an acronym of Neurolinguistic Programming, drawing on the work of 20th century psychologists and therapists such as Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson, encapsulated those processes repeated thousands of times daily under the concept of “metaprogrammes” because they are self-processing – based on the context – and rooted deeper (meta) than our behaviors.

Metaprogrammes are often introduced in pairs of opposed behaviors. For instance, “towards vs. away from”. Metaprogrammes describe a preferred path to do something or say something. “Towards” is when a person’s attention is directed towards what they want, and “away from” towards what they don’t want. A metaprogramme is useful or limiting depending upon context. Going towards people is helpful in trade, while avoiding getting injured or killed is useful for a fire fighter.

When associated, metaprogrammes allow us to perceive behavioral capacities (or preferences) that will be displayed in a certain context. 4 pairs of metaprogrammes can strengthen or weaken a customer-centric posture, at least in most business contexts in Europe:

  • away from vs. towards

  • problem-orientated vs. solution-orientated

  • reactive vs. proactive

  • process vs. results

Let’s consider each pair one by one.

The “away vs. towards” pair, as we’ve seen, describes a preference for avoiding or addressing. For those who tend to prefer to avoid a potential issue, addressing sometimes sounds like confronting and potentially conflicting. For those who tend to confront opinions, views and objectives, “addressing” an issue doesn’t mean that it ends up with a clash. Confronting fact and addressing an issue both display a very useful behavior in a customer-centric posture in order to face customer’s reality. That’s the bottom line expected by a customer. That’s why it is a preferred option to be orientated “towards” rather than “away from” to behave in a customer-centric way.  

Being «solution-orientated » rather than « problem-orientated » is also useful to have a customer-centric posture. This statement is not contradictory to the previous one. When your customer is facing a problem and you are interfacing with him or her (even if you only belong to the organization he or she deems to be at the origin of his or her problem), confronting the problem is a first step. But, being “problem-orientated” is of no help. Orientating yourself towards the solution is the only way to ensure that your customer sees you as part of the problem solving. One can perceive somebody’s solution-orientation to such aspects as affirmative phrasing, inclusive verbal modes (I will do, we will reply) and positiveness in attitude and expression.

The “reactive vs. proactive” pair put action at the core of a customer-centric posture. Let’s look at the example of home appliance and electric shop after-sales service, well-known for irritating customers unhappy with their equipment’s malfunction. Obviously, customers don’t only expect a good after-sales service to confront the problem and to come up with solutions, they also expect that a professional service will lead a course of action to take the burden away from them. In a B2B environment, best-in-class electronics manufacturers have engaged proactively in predictive maintenance, which means that they sign up with their customers to ensure that they will be onsite (or off-site) to make sure that problems don’t occur in the first place. Proactivity is a much better option than reactivity to gain a customer-centric posture.

The fourth pair opposes “process vs. results”.  Acting in a “results-oriented” manner is more helpful to display a customer-centric posture than acting in a “process-orientated” way. Let’s imagine again the case of a hotel manager. He has a process in place to stop water leakage from the toilet flush in guest rooms. Let’s imagine that, for any good reason, something in this process doesn’t work, for instance missing personnel or an emergency somewhere else.  It will be necessary to adapt to circumstances in order to satisfy guests facing water leakage in their rooms. Understanding how crucial it is to be results-orientated to act with a customer-centric posture is key to also understand why adopting the mindset of customer-centricity comes before implementing customer-centric policies. Doing it opposite would put the cart before the horse.

The bad news is that an organization’s customer orientation doesn’t start with a customer policy and not even with a customer-centric skill training program. It starts with acquiring a customer-centric mindset and diffusing it within the organization. It is also important to understand that it is a top-down choice and starts with executives and managers first. The good news is that a customer-centric mindset and behaviors associated with it can be acquired quite easily. For this purpose, it is useful to know that behaviors – and metaprogrammes alone – are not definitively acquired and can be modified. Result-orientation, solution-orientation, proactivity – among others – can be developed in a professional context with several forms of assistance including coaching.

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