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Are you brave enough for customer centricity?

customer centric business

Customer centric business

It is one thing to say that the Customer is at the heart of any business but quite another to fully embrace the idea and have a truly customer centric business. A couple of stories from the not-too-distant past help illustrate the point. First, ask yourself these questions:

  • To build business with a client or prospect what do you need to know about their business?
  • What are your ‘benefits’?
  • What are your ‘strengths’?
  • What do you need to know about the competition – yours and those of your prospect?

Now, here’s the first story about the challenges of having a customer centric business.

A large, rosewood, mirror-polished table dominates the boardroom; around it, 20 or so black-leather chairs. Half a dozen dinner-plate sized ashtrays signal that we are in a time gone by (the mid-1980s), as does the battery of Kodak Carousel projectors facing a screen.

For a day and a half, the client executives grouped at one end of the big table have listened to a procession of advertising agency teams competing for their business. The agency team now gathering up their presentation boards and slide trays has just delivered a high-energy presentation designed, they hope, to leave their prospective client slavering for something they call B.H.A.G.s (Big Hairy Audacious Goals). Truth to tell, the client team is fed up to the back teeth with BHAGs, STARs (Strategically Targeted Advertising Rationales), APEX (Ad Powered EXcellence) and the like presented by the agency teams that have so far cost them one and a half days of their lives and the will to live the rest. The only thing they have to look forward to is the fact that the upcoming presentation is the final one.

The agency team walks in. Or, rather, one man walks in. “Good afternoon,” he says. The client executives nod, wondering where the rest of this guy’s team are. He walks the length of the room towards them. He doesn’t even look like an ad man: he’s smartly turned out, yes, but not really tall enough, or with enough hair to instil Mad Man confidence.

He walks right up to the client team. “Mind if I sit here?” Bemused, the chairman of the client team signals him to do so. The agency guy takes a single pad of paper from his briefcase and says, “Thanks for this opportunity for a chat. You know my agency and the great advertising we do. The question is, what would we do for you?”

The client team look expectantly. Perhaps this is the point where the rest of this guy’s team will burst through the door and sing their solution through a cloud of dry ice? But no.

“I don’t yet know the answer to that question, because I don’t know enough about your goals and your customers. So I’m not going to insult your intelligence with some top-of-the-head idea. It would be easy, but it would be wrong. I want to work with you to identify advertising that will be right for your customers, and right for your business.” The client team want to give him a hug.

I first heard this story in the 1980s. It came back to mind, recently, when I read Perfect Pitch (by Jon Steel, Wiley, 2007). In it, Steel recounts a similar tale. So, is it actually a legend? Probably. In each telling of the tale there is a very specific David versus Goliath component. It is important that the protagonist is not the stereotypical tall-standing, smooth-talking, charm-streaming Mad Man. He must be more unassuming. And in Jon Steel’s version, “The real coup de grace came when he said that he thought he was perhaps less well qualified than all of his competitors …”

Whatever the truth of it, it’s a good parable. Any pitch made on the basis of guesswork and hype won’t work. So, to answer those starter questions for moving toward customer centricity:

  • No supplier can hope to provide any real Customer Value unless the client’s business and market are properly understood
  • ‘Benefits’ or ‘strengths’ are benefits or strengths only to the extent that they are relevant to a client’s or prospect’s situation
  • It is impossible to formulate any client offering or solution of value without knowing who the competitors are, and how they compare. And there’s the need to understand other alternatives available to the prospect, including the frequently alluring “Do nothing” option

These points are, surely, sweet reason? But that can be hard to remember when in the thick of a proposal, or when a prospect challenges you for a top-of-mind response.

So, finally, another advertising agency story. In 1982, London advertising agency Allen Brady and Marsh won the account for Britain’s then-nationalized rail service, British Rail. The agency was headed by the flamboyant Peter Marsh.

The British Rail team visited each of the shortlisted agencies. When they arrived at Allen Brady and Marsh, they were asked to wait at reception. They waited. And they waited. The appointment time passed, and the British Rail executives started getting impatient. When they were getting nicely steamed up, someone turned up to apologize for the fact that Mr. Marsh was delayed, and offered the guests some refreshments. A trolley was wheeled in. On it were supplies of tea, coffee and sandwiches. But the tea and coffee were stewed, and the curled sandwiches had obviously been made days previously.

The guests’ irritation turned to anger, and a rapidly growing determination to walk out. Just when they were on the point of so doing, Peter Marsh appeared: “Gentlemen, what you’ve just experienced is what your customers tell us they experience when they use British Rail. That’s the problem we have to overcome.”

That took guts. Ask yourself, are you brave enough to have a truly customer centric business?


Valuegenie is the answer to the perennial challenge for businesses – how to attract and retain customers?

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