Customer Centricity is MORE than Customer Experience

Recently, I’ve been talking with clients about a critical, albeit subtle distinction – so I thought I would share it with you.

Frequently, you’ll hear these two phrases used rather interchangeably. The first is customer-centricity, and the other is customer experience. From my vantage point, the latter phrase (customer experience) is a subset of the former (customer-centricity).

I think of it like this. Customer-centricity is a commitment or a strategy to assure the success of your customer. Whereas, customer experience is a set of customer perceptions forged across all their interactions with your brand.

Leaders at brands committed to customer-centric outcomes typically seek to demonstrate that commitment by interacting with the customer in ways that favorably affect their customers’ perceptions. That said, many customer-centric actions happen outside the view of customers and, as such, may not even reach the awareness of the customer.

Customer-Centric Even If Customers Don’t Know

It’s been said that “Integrity is what you do when no one is watching.” Similarly, customer-centricity reflects all the things you do whether or not the customer notices. I remember a discussion early on with a Starbucks financial officer. We talked about a seemingly minor decision that had a substantial cost impact on the brand but had only a subtle impact on a subset of customer perceptions. That decision involved toilet paper!

To understand the significance of Starbucks’ toilet paper decision, please indulge me to outline Starbucks customer-centric strategy and unfortunately offer a bit of bathroom banter. Leaders at Starbucks, in part, define customer success as offering affordable luxury to customers wherever the customer finds the brand (online, voice, mobile, and in-store). This objective is based on the reality that not everyone can treat themselves to a spa day at the Ritz-Carlton. But most people can nurture themselves by swinging into a Starbucks to sit in a comfortable chair and savor their favorite non-alcoholic beverage. In-store customer success occurs, in part, when a Starbucks customer leaves feeling affordably nurtured.

Many things go into achieving that customer-centric outcome (training, lighting, products, store design, etc.). Some of the decisions involved in this customer-centric strategy are extremely obvious to customers and others are not. Truly customer-centric brands make decisions that drive customer success even if the impact of those decisions are imperceptible or faintly perceived by the customer during their journey with the brand. Two-ply vs. single-ply toilet paper is one such decision that is in keeping with Starbucks customer-centric focus although only mildly perceptible to a segment of Starbucks consumers.

Taking Short Cuts

Forgive me for this mini-refresher on toilet paper, but it’s needed for context. As the description implies, single-ply toilet paper is a single layer of paper while double-ply is made from two layers of paper. People who research such things suggest that people do not compensate with single-ply paper by using twice as much of it. In fact, a Reddit researcher suggests single-ply is at least 22% more efficient and yes cheaper than double-ply!

If you multiply the cost efficiency of single-ply toilet paper times annual toilet paper consumption across every Starbucks around the world, you could generate big savings with likely minimal impact on customer perceptions of the touchpoint. To minimize that impact further, you can subtract out a lot of customers who never use toilet paper in a Starbucks and make the case that “single-ply” is the future! Financial officers at less customer-centric brands might say, “Let’s go with single-ply. The toilet paper touchpoint is a small part of the customer journey.” A customer-centric brand like Starbucks says let’s stay with double-ply.

On a More Serious Note

While Starbucks toilet paper is my somewhat light-hearted example of customer-centricity in action, recent choices made by another client should bring home the distinction far more powerfully. This example demonstrating customer centricity involves doing the right thing for your customer even if that potentially means short-term consequences for your sales.

This month is a huge month for Godiva chocolates. Valentine’s Day is a pinnacle sales driver for the brand. Yet, in Japan Godiva purchased an advertisement discouraging chocolate gifting for Valentine’s Day. As you may know, Japan has a tradition of women being expected to give “obligation chocolate” to male co-workers on Valentine’s Day. There is a reciprocal tradition of men giving chocolate to female colleagues about a month later. In the advertisement, the head of Godiva Japan essentially said “chocolate is for pleasure” and shouldn’t be a pressured expectation. WOW, customer-centric strategy without attempting to positively improve the customer experience online or instore, except to possibly reduce a stress driver for purchase!

Taking a Stand for the Customer

Customer centricity is the willingness to stand-up for what is best for your customer. Often but not always, that commitment is realized in perceptual contact points during the customer’s journey with your brand (the customer experience).

How are you defining customer success?

What decisions are you making in keeping with a customer-centric commitment to help your customers achieve that success even if those decisions have short-term consequences on you or fall outside the perceptual experience of your customers?


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Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies.

Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli

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