Craggy Peak Research

If you're becoming more customer-centric in order to improve your bottom line, you're not.

Todd Haskell | July 3, 2019

Not being more customer-centric, that is. To explain what I mean, I'll start with one of my own interactions with e-mail marketing, involving a major travel booking site that shall not be named. Here are the subject lines of several recent marketing e-mails I received from said company:

  • Nicely done! You’re getting FIFTY PERCENT OFF
  • Ahem: You're approved for these vacation packages for under $400
  • Yes. Correct. Confirmed. You’re getting an extra 10% off!
  • ✈ You've been given this Delta flight deal under $200

Perhaps these messages appeal to some consumers. However, they really rub me the wrong way, to the point where I now have a fairly negative view of the company, despite being a long-time customer. Why? Because the messages are inauthentic.

Take the first message, which begins with "Nicely done!" I did nothing but check my e-mail. Or the last message, which begins "You've been given." This implies that the deal is not available to everybody, but if you actually read the message, the wording changes in a subtle but important way: "We found you Delta flights under $200!" So I'm not getting a lower price than anyone else.

These ads make a common mistake: They are superficially about what the customer wants, but underneath they are all about what the company wants. Let's unpack that a little more.

When we think about the relationships we have with other people, we can distinguish between two kinds of relationships. In instrumental relationships, our relationship with the other person is for the purpose of achieving a practical goal. For example, when I order a one-entree bowl at Panda Express, I have an instrumental relationship with the restaurant staff. In expressive relationships, our relationship with the other person involves an emotional commitment. We lean on these relationships for companionship and social support. When I give my wife a hug when I see her after getting home from work, I'm not trying to achieve a particular near-term goal; I am trying to maintain an emotional bond.

Both kinds of relationships are important, but they serve different roles, and different kinds of behaviors are associated with each kind of relationship. For example, it would be inappropriate for me to give a Panda Express employee a hug for giving me my one-entree bowl. It would be equally inappropriate for me to hand my wife a $10 bill because she cooked dinner.

One of the purposes of expressive relationships is to help maintain our sense of self-worth. We can (hopefully) count on our friends and loved ones to make us feel good about ourselves. This can be done by something as simple as laughing when we make a dumb joke.

The reason the ads above ring hollow for me is that they have an expressive feel in what is clearly an instrumental relationship. The travel company has no emotional commitment to me. So if they are trying to make me feel good about myself, it's clearly not because they are trying to maintain our bond. Instead, it comes across as trying to manipulate me.

Of course, companies can have expressive relationships with customers, and there are many companies that do this very well. The key is simple in theory but hard in practice: You have to actually care about the customer, not just in instrumental terms as a way to sell products, but in expressive, human terms. When your customer is struggling, you need to feel their struggles. When they triumph, you need to be celebrating alongside them. When they need you, you need to be willing to make a sacrifice in the short term in order to maintain the relationship in the long term. And perhaps most importantly of all, you need to be honest with both them and with yourself about what kind of relationship you are trying to create.

This brings us back to the title of this post. In a nutshell, being customer-centric is not about following a 5-step procedure or crossing off items on a checklist. It is about your fundamental values as a company, and the values of everyone who works at your company. You don't become customer-centric in order to make your business more successful. You are customer-centric because to be any other way would be inconsistent with your values. Paradoxically, the less you think about the pay-off, the more likely you are to actually experience it.