Lessons from the community

Empowering people to make organisations more customer centric

While I would describe my outlook to work as being customer-centred I am aware that this is a grand statement, too vague to mean much.

I would suggest that somewhere in the literature of almost all organizations customer experience is prioritised, this is the good news. The difficulty is that there is too much lip service paid to the idea and not enough in the way of delivery. Being customer centric itself is commendable and having been involved in these discussions over the last 15 years, I agree that at the time they feel like the right thing to be doing. These discussions can even lead to some success and if pursued can help inspire an organization to improve its level of service.

The difficulty does not seem to stem from the integrity of the effort or the commitment of the teams involved, but from where the idea sits and how the organisation is mobilized around it.

Bringing attention to the customer is not enough – there needs to be practical and tangible actions employees can take.

The first problem is that in the majority of the situations, the goal to be more customer centric is not part of the leadership DNA. When this is the case ideas are shoehorned into promises that remain distinct from the business’ other goals – customer satisfaction is badly gauged then forgotten. As such it stays at the level of being what Jim Collins calls a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG). Job done, box ticked but no progress made.

The question has to be, if this goal is so heartfelt and important should it be one of a business’s top priorities? Perhaps even something that each employee is measured and rewarded on?

The second issue came to me recently when reading David Remnick’s ‘The Bridge’ about the life and rise to power of Barack Obama. It discusses the work of Saul Alinksy on Chicago’s South Side and his unique take on community organisation. Alinksy borrows Thoreau’s words to describe the “lives of quiet desperation”, of the citizens he is trying to mobilize. While their situation and apathy are incomparible to that of urban professionals, it is interesting to compare the role of Alinsky with that of the customer service enthusiast, especially as Remick attributes the success in Chicago to the fact that:

“Alinsky loathed do-gooders and moral abstractions: he valued concrete victories over dogma and talk. To combat defeatism and apathy…he appealed to self interest.” Saul Alinsky’s approach to community organising can help us organize employees themselves to be more customer centric. Other community organisers including Obama, became fascinated by the role of leadership, especially the problems created by a vocal and charismatic leader concerned with the appearance that things are ‘in hand’, rather than getting people to make the small tangible steps towards genuine improvements. In this last regard, the job of the leader is not just to set the goal but to make the opportunity or the problem real and important to everyone. Leadership is to give them the tools to make small but tangible improvements rather than simply ticking the box each time ‘customer centric’ pops up on the agenda.

Mindset reminder

  • Lip service paid to customer centricity is not helped by the fact that the customer experience is seldom well-measured or geared to the interests of the majority of employees
  • To move the needle, customer champions would be better advised to look at employee’s self interest and help them to make small concrete victories


Collins, J. (1995) "The State of Small Business; Building Companies to ast"
Fehnert, B. and Kosagowsky, A (2008) "Measuring User Experience: Complementing Qualitative and Quantitative Assessment". Strategy. ACM, pp. 383-386.
Remnick, D. (2010) "The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama". Picador.

Ben Fehnert