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Say It With Me: Your Customer Is Your Business

In my younger years, I managed restaurants. I remember two types of managers: back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house. Those in the back managed projections, orders, and procedures, while those out front with the customers and employees made things happen. (I was the latter.) To this day, many organizations are run by the back of the house, so focused on the logistics of the business and internal practices that they have lost sight of their true business: their customers.

But most companies are entering a time where their revenue is highly vulnerable to change. The business environment is shifting at a pace that is hard to keep up with, even with constant monitoring. What’s more, society is changing courtesy of technology and the expectations its many forms are shaping. When we think of market disruption, we think of technologies or business models, but that is not exactly correct. It is the change in value those technologies and business models deliver to customers that causes disruption.

The result is the need to shift mindsets, change leadership, and refocus on customers.

New Way Of Thinking
One of the major mindshifts organizations need to understand is that their products, services, and companies, themselves, are not their business.

“In today’s digital age, the customer is reclaiming their voice and is seeking ways to connect and to be engaged by brands in a more meaningful way,” Mordecai Holtz, chief digital strategist and co-founder of Blue Thread Marketing, told me. “Organizations have to respond because customers are the lifeblood of their business.”

Too many companies are too focused on their products, he told me. Some think their policies, management, multiple locations, systems, and brands are their business. Sure, those are all parts of the delivery of customer value and experience, but their customers must take precedence.

So how can that mindset be changed? Start with understanding the basic premise of an experience business (as I discussed in my previous article). Often we hear talk about digital transformation and the need for business agility as a response to change, but that is a small Band-Aid for a bigger issue. Business structures are being disrupted, not just by new models but by the raised expectations of customers and the lack of value delivered by old models. Businesses went from strength by organizational structure and optimization (a.k.a. the Industrial Age), to focusing on leadership, company culture, and agility (a.k.a. the modern Internet Age). The next phase shifts from the internal focus to the external delivery of value and experience to customers and puts all previous parts in context to that one goal.

With the right mindset, a business can fuel the type of leadership needed to create change. Organizations don’t change by decree; they change from within via new thinking and perspectives. A customer mindset needs to be part of your meetings, management, and decision making. Business leadership needs to be driven by customer advocacy. All key decision makers and HR need to be pillars of customer-centricity to properly align a business with its true bottom line. (Guess who?) Apple doesn’t dominate the market because it has the best computers. It dominates because it delivers value and experience to its customers better than its competitors.  

Bottom Line Matters Most
Businesses are often focused on internal management and their own bottom lines. The problem is they are neglecting the customer’s bottom line, which is the person’s experience. This is what they take away from coming in contact with your company and includes everything they thought before, during, and after the interaction. Organizations have to learn the context for every decision they make and how it impacts their customers. If they fail to do so, they are commoditizing their businesses.

So it’s crazy to me that businesses today don’t see the value of being able to talk to one of their customers. Before the internet and social media, it was highly impractical to reach out on a personal level. Then came mass marketing, which built a wall over which to broadcast messages and then wait for sales. It’s as impersonal a form of communication as you can get. Now—and for the first time in history—businesses can actually talk to our customers and deliver personalized experiences.

Yet for too many businesses, their customers are merely avatars, profiles, and even data in a CRM. What they should be is real and alive, with thriving relationships. This is why I’m a bit wary of using chatbots and AI to handle customer service. As if having a person in a call center in another part of the country or world wasn’t far enough removed from the actual company, now we are letting people talk to a bot. To me, it’s just another example of a back-of-the-house manager who creates pseudo-relationships based on scale, revenue, and business growth. But in a self-centered, highly distracted world, real relationships are anchors of attention and trust. They’re the high bar in business.

However, as long as companies treat customers as faceless avatars with money to spend, customers will, in turn, ignore their marketing, switch brands on a whim, and forget the companies even exist. When an organization forgets its customers, its business becomes forgettable. (Interestingly, brands think they are doing better than they actually are.) Nobody remembers a purchase they made six years ago on a Tuesday; that is transactional. No matter how busy or distracted customers get, they make room in their minds for relationships.

My parting advice? Every time you begin your workday, remind yourself that what you’re doing is not your business. Rather, your customers are your business. If you change that one mindset and teach others in your organization to do the same, you will see customer-centric leadership and culture emerge that will prepare you for a volatile but manageable future with the right focus.

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