thinking like a customer

thinking like a customer

Customer-Centric Managers

By on October 28, 2009

Customer-centricity is, of course, cultural and should be driven by executive leadership. But can middle managers transform a product-centric culture into a customer-centered one? Definitely.

An essential function of management is to design processes that add value to customers. Henry Mintzberg, in Managing, however, discusses the "ambiguities of senior managers." Although they may be customer-focused in principle, they are necessarily faced with broader issues. In a manifestation of the Peter Principle, they can become disconnected from what they are supposed to be knowledgeable about: their customers. Middle managers are closer to the front line where they carry out these processes. They must make pragmatic change happen, then promote that change back up the hierarchy.

ZenRocksMintzberg discusses how effective managers organize the experience of their groups. He offers his own version of this structured approach at Coaching Ourselves. He suggests regular 90-minute meetings that connect theory with everyday practice. Imagine how customer-centered your team will be if you lead them in weekly sessions designed to analyze actual performance and future opportunities by thinking like a customer. This shared workplace approach allows interpretation and legitimizes proactive, creative efforts by employees. It creates a mini-community of employees empowered to add value to customers and design new processes. Customer focus will transform employees from playing on a team to playing as a team, as Peter Drucker wrote.

Customer-centric managers who are change agents must have:

  1. Great communication among their employees in order to mobilize initiatives for the customer and celebrate victories.
  2. The willingness to look for how to add value to customers. If you think "We make widgets and customers buy them" it is a huge leap to get to "We are in the customer-value business and we just happen to sell widgets."
  3. The ability to see how the needs of select groups of customers may differ from the needs of others. If, for example, in the real estate industry, your organization thinks the needs of a single 30-year old woman who wants to sell her house are the same as a 65-year old married couple, then your approach falls into the one-size-fits-all technique.
  4. The capability to start a project without knowing what the end will be--only that it will be better for the customer.
  5. The passion to make sure that customers are made aware of the improvements that happen.
  6. The confidence to publicize their group's successes to executives and the rest of the organization, so that the transformation takes hold.

A few passionate managers can change the culture in an organization by leading their team toward customer-centricity. As Andy Grove of Intel has said, "nothing leads as well as example." A manager at one of our clients, as we were discussing customer focus, told me, "It's personal. I want to make the customers' job easier." Executive leadership must set the tone and direction for customer-centricity. But middle managers are in the best position to know when to take off the training wheels and make change happen.

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One Response to “Customer-Centric Managers”

  1. Mark Price says:

    Your comments about customer-centric managers being change agents in their organizations is particularly apt. More and more, my clients find themselves much more challenged by internal changes than by changes in customer relationships -- after all, customers WANT to have their lives simplified, if it is done authentically.

    You mentioned that a customer-centric manager must be willing to start a project without knowing the end destination. In my experience, the migration to customer-centricity must be started without knowing the end result, but it is also critical that the manager find a way to break up this process into clear, defined steps with goals, measurements and milestones to be able to gain executive buy-in to move ahead with each step on the journey.

    In this way, the manager can gain credit not only for focusing on true customer needs, but also for taking a complex process and breaking it down into manageable steps.

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