How to become customer centric by design

How to become customer centric by design

Organisations of all types are touting “customer centricity” as their overarching strategic imperative. But few organisations have truly achieved this goal. Why? Because it is hard! To be customer centric requires a fundamental shift in mindsets, measurements and daily practices across the organisation. How can you transform large, complex, siloed organisations to operate in a customer and employee centric way?

While there is an abundance of published advice about “the things that must be done”, there is very little written about how to move from this abstract strategic intent into the tangible, practical changes required to make it happen in a sustainable way. We believe that our approach, which incorporates the key principles and practices of service design, offers a compelling solution. This short article explains how.

The false promise of technology fixing it all

The large investments in technology that have characterised the strategy of many service and product organisations in the last few decades, have partly failed to deliver on the expected outcomes. The promise of technology delivering efficiency, alignment and speed has not materialised into efficient, fast, and relevant organisations. The reason is very simple, organisations are made up of humans and technology. And the human factor has for too long not been taken into its rightful consideration. There is a renewed understanding that in order to enable efficient and relevant organisations, the customer and the employee’s perspectives need to find a central role in processes of prioritisation and development.

Why do we still have companies that drive their customers crazy and organisations that alienate and frustrate their employees?

The customer logic

This concept is not new. Both practice and academia have recognised and addressed the need for customer and employee centricity for the last 50 years at least [2]. So, why isn’t it happening? Why do we still have companies that drive their customers crazy and organisations that alienate and frustrate their employees? Many of today’s legacy organisations were built in an industrial era where the dominant logic was the one of the product. Driven by efficiency, decreasing margins, and the belief that technology is the key driver of innovation, these organisations have developed strict control mechanisms where models like the stage gate have been given free rein. Customer centricity represents an alternative logic, that can be seen as competing with existing dominant logics (although we believe they can co-exist in harmony). The customer logic is driven by customer experience and the belief that a deep understanding of the people you serve is the most important driver of innovation. Iteration is at the core of this logic. The customer logic does not just offer an alternative model of competitiveness. It offers an alternative set of values and beliefs that challenges the very core of people’s understanding of what is a legitimate way of operating. Some would call this a cultural shift. 

Comparing a product and a customer centric approach (Shah et al., 2006, p.115)

Build, Do, Learn, Adopt. Start the cycle again reaching an increasingly wider audience.

If you decide to use design as a medium to establish customer and employee centricity in the organisation, in our experience there are five things you’ll have to do:

  1. Build sustainable design capabilities: This covers the infrastructure to enable the organisation to use design, including ways of organising, processes and ways of working. It encompasses multiple key elements such as a clearly defined business case for customer centricity and design, an operating model for design, as well as the definition of new metrics. 
  2. Do projects: Prove the value of design in practice as soon as possible. Especially at the beginning, it’s important to choose the right projects to start with. Small enough to run fast, visible enough to be noticed, concerning stakeholders that are willing to contribute and participate
  3. Learn through training: Everyone should have a basic understanding of design thinking but different audiences need to reach different levels of knowledge. For example, decision makers need to understand the value of customer centricity and its potential impact on the organisation. Internal clients need to understand how to employ design within their context for immediate results.
  4. Adopt into business as usual mechanisms: Enable new ways of working in pockets of the organisation. For example, new ways to prioritize change. Build on and augment existing practices, do not try to replace them. Do not create a new silo; it probably won’t work. 
  5. Iterate in cycles: Start with a small audience of people you trust, show value and grow your reach, cycle by cycle. Avoid trying to boil the ocean. 
A design approach to customer and employee centricity

Design helps through artefacts and stories

The introduction of customer logic in an organisational environment inevitably challenges the status quo. This tension becomes tangible and visible in the way people prioritise projects, (do not) align around goals and objectives, (do not) collaborate for product and service development, to name a few. This is where design comes to play. Design is a powerful medium to support not only the introduction of a customer logic but also its diffusion and adoption. It does so through two key outputs: visual artefacts and sticky stories

Visual artefacts are for example customer journeys, blueprints, storyboard scenarios and prototypes. Artefacts are necessary to ‘getting things done’ in organisations [1]. They are boundary objects meaning that they are defined enough to be recognisable as the same objects by different audiences, yet flexible enough that each audience can use them according to their own needs. They offer a common visual language that avoids any misinterpretation. They allow a shared representation of knowledge among people carrying different values, as well as facilitate knowledge transformation. 

Stories are short simplified narratives representing an idea or a real experience. Stories have the power to bring individuals’ as well as the organisation’s imagination to life in seconds. A good story is sticky, once told it will get a life of its own, passing from person to person, reaching corners of the organisation you might not otherwise reach. Both design artefacts and stories allow processes of translation, to establish a shared language, coordination and alignment between fundamentally different perspectives.

Design enables the introduction, diffusion and adoption of the customer logic through artefacts and stories.

8 common pitfalls

We have reflected on the collective experiences of our clients and see 8 common pitfalls when trying to drive customer centricity by design:

  1. Unrealistic pace – trying to go too fast, creating complexity, driving confusion and wasting money
  2. Wrong early bets – choosing the wrong proof projects, not showing early benefits, creating cynics around you
  3. Blurry accountability – confusion over who has ultimate call on priorities or design decisions; stepping on another department’s “turf”
  4. Losing sponsorship – leaders may shift over time, you should always have a fresh business case at hand, you might need to sell this again… and again
  5. Change congestion – inability to recognise other existing and competing change initiatives creating competition for funding and resources
  6. Value articulation – difficulty isolating benefits resulting directly from the design approach, especially hard to compare the value vs. “other approaches”
  7. Cultural discomfort – failure, uncertainty, iteration & chaos are usually not acceptable, needs to be acknowledged and managed
  8. Failing to articulate who the customer is – failing to achieve a clear and shared understanding of who the customer is and how the ecosystem players relate to each other

By 2020, poor customer experiences will destroy 30% of digital business projects [4].

Recognising design legacies

At the core of this journey there must be the recognition that you are not entering the organisation introducing design for the first time. People “design” in your organisation all the time. You might consider that kind of design not to be “good design”, yet it does exist. Organisations are full of design legacies that need to be recognised and leveraged [3]. The dominant product logic has its own design rules and truths. Shifting from one logic to the other will take time. The two logics can find a balance and coexist successfully for a long time. Respecting the existing and building on it is the true key to success.

Nine women can’t make a baby in a month

Becoming customer and employee centric is possible. We have seen many large, complex, siloed organisations achieve this goal. Design can certainly help you in this process and boost your chances of success. It’s important to recognise, however, that this is a marathon not a sprint, and needs to be strategised as such. Shifting towards a customer logic challenges the core set of values and beliefs that drive people’s behaviour. It also calls into question well-established processes, systems and ways of working that define the very core of an organisation. Give it time and space to breathe, and have a plan to scale, because value is maximised through more pervasive adoption. Design is a team sport – drive adoption through participation, not by building an army of designers. Be patient and steady in your approach, be bold when needed and proud of all the small achievements you’ll collect on the way.

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  1. Wechsler, J. &  Schweitzer, J. (2019) Design artefacts as flexible and persuasive tools for customer-centric innovation. Proceeding of the Design Innovation Management Conference 2019. London, UK
  2. Shah, D., Rust, R., Parasuraman, A., Staelin, R., & Day, G. (2006) The Path to Customer Centricity. Journal of Service Research, 9 (2), 113-124
  3. Junginger, S. (2015) Organisational design legacies and service design. The Design Journal 18 (2). 
  4. Goasduff, L. (2019) Is your organization customer centric? Gartner