Making the distinction between customer-centeredness and customer experience is important.  Simply put, customer experience is transactional and operational; customer-centeredness is cultural and strategic.  To be transactional means we focus on what happens when the customer encounters and uses a specific product.  That product could be a cup of coffee, or sheets of toilet paper.  What often masquerades as customer-centric strategy is often merely a classic case of treating transactional relationships as if they represent a cultural framework for all behavior and its attendant assumptions, priorities, and measures of success.

As I discuss in my fourth book, Mastering Excellence, there are several simple tests of whether or not an organization is customer-centered, including the following:

  • Are customers unambiguously identified? The vast majority of organizations focus only on customers external to it.  Aren’t employees recipients of products produced by others within the enterprise?  If so, they are customers of specific products they receive. The customer-centered organization has articulated practices for uncovering, translating, measuring, delivering and improving products produced and received by its employees. The leader of one HR organization decided to model this behavior. She and her team identified over 170 products produced by their department, used defined criteria to prioritize them, identified who the end-users were for the most important products, then began to systematically improve and innovate. One discovery that shocked them was that several products were not wanted and were not useful to any users. They were stopped being produced. That customer-centered disease then spread to every other department organization.  The organization dedicated to enhancing customer experience is unlikely to follow the lead of this HR visionary.
  • Are customers differentiated by the roles they play with the product? There are three roles a customer can play: end-user, broker and fixer.  Organizations commonly confuse brokers with end-users.  This empowers those who merely transfer the product to the end-user, disempowering end-users.  To illustrate with the toilet paper example, it is more likely the buyers of it have more sway on whether or not it is one-ply or two-ply than the end-users.  The automakers in Detroit have historically colluded with dealers to the disadvantage of drivers and passengers.  There is plenty of evidence, including the fact they have prohibited prospective buyers of Tesla vehicles from buying those EVs directly from Tesla.  Sad for them, they don’t seem to recognize folks are easily able to cross state lines and get what they want.  The end-user generally wins in the long run.  Maybe it is irrelevant that Tesla, as of 2018, matched the capitalization value of GM.
  • Does the enterprise have a written customer satisfaction policy? It probably has policies for a myriad of other things.  If customer satisfaction is a priority, as it is for a truly customer-centered organization, there should be a policy to deploy that core value.  Sadly, such a policy is more often than not a missing plank in the bridge to excellence.

Strategies to strengthen customer experience and customer-centeredness are both worth pursuing.  Just don’t confuse their many differences.  The customer-centered enterprise is very likely to be working hard on proactively designing and delivering superb customer experience.  The reverse is not necessarily true.  In fact, customer experience for many continues to be an effort to reactively respond to complaints.  Not a bad thing to do, but it’s not a strategy likely to take you to the top among your competitors.

For anyone wanting to know what leadership can do to transform their current culture into one with stronger customer-centeredness, it may be helpful to explore the six change levers discussed in chapter six of the above book.