Gerry Brown
Gerry Brown (CX Research Director)

I recently attended a tech vendor conference and an analyst from another company presented on how we should all be “customer obsessed“. This set me thinking in a Carrie Bradshaw (from Sex in the City) kind of way: is customer obsession really a good thing?

When I think about obsession, I think about Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, boiling bunnies and doing other strange non-functional things. The Clint Eastwood film Play Misty for Me is equally unsettling.

Google defines obsession as “a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling” which is consistent with the above observations. Meaning, too much focus on one thing can severely damage everything else. For example, former British Prime Minister Liz Truss’ obsession with her growth agenda revealed a lack of balanced thinking that had calamitous consequences.

Balancing the Books

There are good reasons why the most important financial statements are “balance sheets” and “profit and loss”. They are designed to show a balanced, objective and factual view of the business performance and viability. There is no room for an emotionally charged item such as “customer obsession” in these documents.

The most famous management framework of the 1990s was Kaplan and Norton’s “Balanced Scorecard”, which suggested good management is about balancing the needs of four constituents:

  • Customers
  • Finance
  • Internal staff and process management
  • Innovation and learning

Jim Collins’ extensive research on top performing companies in the book Good to Great revealed that “success comes from many tiny, incremental pushes in the right direction”. Richard Branson gleefully puts customers second in importance, putting his own staff in first place.

The old idea that “the customer is always right” has thankfully largely been debunked. The customer is sometimes right, but not necessarily always. As Steve Jobs said, “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.” Henry Ford famously said of the Ford Model T car’s success: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Conformance to Customer Requirements Is Key

As any quality manager will tell you (spoiler: I used to be a quality instructor), quality is about conformance to customer requirements, not about customer obsession. Really listening aggressively and taking customer requirements seriously and then harnessing the power of your organisation to deliver on those requirements is the real trick to customer experience and customer success.

Contrary to what some corporate executives may believe, this success does not come overnight by announcing that you are a customer-obsessed company. Actions (and investments) speak louder than words. You need to be fully committed to customer experience (CX) for the long term to build an end-to-end customer-centric organisational culture. This is how Amazon and John Lewis have created powerful and successful brands that are synonymous with excellent customer experiences and customer service.

Since its founding in 1999, customer success has been one of the five Salesforce “core values” (the other four being trust, innovation, sustainability and equality). This is Salesforce’s “Balanced Scorecard”, which is customer centric, not customer obsessed. This balanced customer focus has enabled Salesforce to surpass SAP as the world’s leading enterprise software applications company — despite SAP having a 27-year head start.

The Bottom Line

I can understand the allure of the customer obsession idea. Some might believe that the customer obsession phrase will differentiate their CX from their competitors in an “ah, look, this proves our CX is better” sort of way. I believe the opposite is true.

Customer obsession puts a dangerous false expectation of primacy in the mind of the customer, pressure on customer-facing staff to bow to unreasonable customer demands and the opportunity for competitors to heap derision on your well-meaning intentions.

My advice: Customers don’t want to be obsessed over, so don’t creep them out with a feeling of unhealthy over-attentiveness. Seek to serve them better, not obsess over them. Keep a laser-beam focus on customer requirements, CX and EX (employee experience) and leave the idea of obsession on the film set or on the perfume counter. Build customer-centricity and customer success into your mission, vision and values and then operationalise your execution, using technology and positive employee attitudes and senior management support as your key enablers.


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