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How to Centre around Your Customers

Customer centricity. A Google search for this term returns over 500,000 results, despite its apparently obvious definition. Because what else should a company centre around, if not its customers? The heightened use of the term speaks volumes. Evidently many managers sense that their business is too heavily focused on products and processes – the need for a more service-orientated mentality is clear.

Engineers are valued in Germany and for good reason; German machine and vehicle manufacturing is admired all over the world. It is executed perfectly to the very last detail. However, the drive for absolute perfection is too deeply ingrained some companies. Recently attending a cocktail party, I spoke to a buyer from a major German car manufacturer. Scandal aside, he assured me that his brand was second to none because of its excellent coating systems. I was as amused as I was stunned. An obsession with the details had led to arrogance. When focussing too closely on the little things, you lose sight of the bigger picture.

In the digital world, speed comes before perfection. A fast time to market is becoming more and more important, as products are never really “complete” anyway – updates bring additional features, patches fix bugs. Supporting this point, US car manufacturer Tesla constantly updates its electric cars with new features via a remote network. It can even remotely provide customers with additional battery range in emergencies – fleeing a hurricane, for instance. In this sense, the quality of paintwork is more or less irrelevant.

Customer Service at the Heart of Digital Transformation

Understanding customers and customer service is at the core of digital transformation. Manufacturing companies realise that consulting, installation and maintenance bring in money and don’t need to be complimentary. In annual Christmas speeches, company employees are told that “customer centricity is our be-all and end-all,” or that “customer service is to be made top priority”. Waiting for such appeals to make their way down through the ranks is like waiting for rain in the desert. Above all, customer centricity is about providing a service. But what does that really mean?

Firstly, customer service is an ethos: a morale that owners and management must set an example for. According to this, leadership is not a privilege to enjoy, but rather a duty to the employee. An interesting theory. In practice, this means that decision-makers must restructure their company in a way that ensures employees are properly equipped to offer a service with the customer’s best interest at heart. In the past, corporate hierarchies resembled military chains of command. The individual, in this method, is a mere cog in the machine. Clearly, the “top-down” style of working environment is no longer compatible in our democratic and digitised world, its principles questioned by Generation Y… in between taking sabbaticals from the office. When business owners and management set an example of how to provide a service, rather than setting strict rules to be followed, they create an opening for customer-centric conduct.

Secondly, customer service is a strategy: Building on the ethos, further questions surrounding aims, structures and control systems may be raised. How much revenue do we wish to make through services? How do customer demands influence new products (if at all)? How will our company organise this? Are our hierarchies there for the employee or for the customer? What information do our employees need in order to effectively provide service that favours the customers’ best interest (and should they even need to do so)? How do employees act when faced with problems, and on what basis do we measure performance and success? These questions barely scratch the surface, but describe the complexity of the subject quite clearly. Pep talks, appeals for “customer centricity”, and other tools are of little help. One thing that is apparent is that traditional measures of success in manufacturing companies, such as delivery reliability and product availability, will drop behind customer centricity in terms of importance.

Thirdly, customer service is collaboration: When a customer-service mentality is led by example and business structures and hierarchies updated, target-orientated activities can begin. Here it is crucial to gather and prepare knowledge from all projects and programmes. A company must learn from every customer it encounters, with the aim of becoming “empathetic”. In marketing this can be seen in the continual gathering of information about customers, which can in turn be used to optimise campaigns and present customers with better offers. This applies, too, to product development and projects. Customers should be involved in the innovation process from an early stage. Agile methodology for software development can help. This is where projects run in a loop of learning and implementation. Expertise and knowledge from multiple areas can be combined, without the specialists dominating the project. This helps form teams that can manage themselves and are able to act more quickly in the interest of the customer.

Things may not always go as we imagine, especially in times like these. The good thing is that we can always work on improving. But this requires a methodical approach; otherwise it is all for nothing.

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