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Are you relating to your customer at all levels?


Much is said about being customer centric. Measurements are made; customer feedback is analysed against benchmarks; marketing teams create content about how much we care about customers. But how does the corporate vision of an organisation really connect, or more often fail to connect, with the beliefs and values of customers? This is not an accident; it is caused by a mismatch in the layers underpinning these lofty ambitions – but there is a way of making an analysis of this and a real improvement at all levels. 

Most organisations of any significant size have invested in defining their vision or mission statement. They can usually be boiled down to variations on a theme of “we will do our best for our customers, shareholders and employees by exceeding expectations, by innovation, by being better than the competition,…” – you can fill in the rest, it is usually predictably organisation centric. Away from the boardroom and the executive vision planning meetings, the reality of dealing with the organisation from the customer perspective can seem far removed from this. 

The reason is the entity that is an organisation is usually governed by cost management, operating models and process maps, locking out flexibility and sometimes making the vision statement seem like an ironic joke to employees saddled with processes and tools that do not suit the customer and causing frustration. The entity that is the customer, however, is driven by emotions, feelings and a set of expectations that may easily be missed. To a customer there are no explicit processes or operating models, although this does exist at a subconscious level. This does not mean, however, that the two can never interact without conflict and misunderstanding. Because there are two hierarchies both have similar levels and by understanding how the customer perceives the organisation on each level the likelihood of improving engagement and customer satisfaction are much improved:

The Customer Engagement Framework

Top layer : Vision versus Beliefs and Values or the Strategic layer: in both cases the top level of the framework describes the highest attributes and ambitions of the organisation or customer. With the organisation this must be made both explicit and public as an organisation is ultimately a collection of individuals with naturally differing views on direction that can and do change, whereas the customer as an individual holds internal beliefs and values that are deep-rooted and very hard to change. It is at this level that customers choose not to engage with firms that go against these values, for example those that focus on “controversial” products such as tobacco or alcohol, openly support political views the customer disagrees with, or companies that are perceived not to operate ethically. No matter how good the customer service is, they will never interact with them in principle. On the other hand, firms that are seen as visionary, a few obvious examples being the consumer technology leader Apple, iconic fashion firms or those with significant charitable goals can attract and retain customers even when day to day customer service fails badly – they will be forgiven by the higher principle of aligning in values and aspirations. It is a rare thing to base relationships only on this, the lower levels almost always play a part in the final decision making process, hence the most successful brands connect not only here but execution is also near-perfect. Most firms do not make a significant connection on this top level alone, but much as an iceberg is mainly below water and invisible, as long as the vision is not an issue it will not inhibit success.

The next layer is Principles for the organisation and Emotions and Identity for the customer, or the Brand layer. The two are closely related. Principles are the manifestation of a Vision – the next layer that starts to define “how we make vision reality” rather than “what are we going (or not going) to do”. On the customer or individual side this is a close match to the Emotions (how I feel and react to my Beliefs and Values) and Identity (what makes me feel attracted to or repulsed from what I am experiencing with reference to my Beliefs and Values). So why are they closely related on this level? Because this is the bridge between concept and reality, on both the company and individual customer sides. In many ways it is the most critical area to get right. It is above the details of exactly what is productised, marketed, sold and serviced but below the more conceptual layer of a vision. Likewise on the customer side it is the bridge between the “gut feel” of beliefs and values that are often hard to articulate and the more easily identified objectives and concrete expectations around customer service. While it is intuitively easy to like or not like a company based on the ethos presented – or perceived – and it is also fairly straightforward to evaluate how your expectations are being met or missed, the Emotions and Identity layer is really what underpins measures such as Net Promoter Score (other established measures e.g. Customer Effort Score is at the next layer down). It is partly derived from hard to express feelings and partly from real examples of good or bad service. How do you decide to recommend or not recommend a company to a friend? It is both feelings based and also on the reality of contact. That is how humans make decisions – although the precise mix of the above and below layers will vary by person – think of the well-known Myers-Briggs measures and how people react differently to others in a similar situation.

The third layer introduces the much more tangible elements of Propositions on the organisation side and Objectives and Expectations on the customer side – the Define layer. The importance of aligning at this level cannot be underestimated. Propositions that are designed to serve the needs of internal functional silos will ultimately fail as the objectives of a customer never include an allowance for e.g. the finance platform not to interface seamlessly with customer helpdesk and therefore a refunds process takes 3 days longer than expected. Expectations are set not only by past experience, although this is important, but by direct and current comparisons with competitors. It can be pictured as many “pyramids” (organisations, left hand side of diagram) interacting with many more “tower blocks” (customers, right hand side of diagram) – a hugely complex set of interactions that ultimately drives an economy. It should also be said that Propositions are not the exclusive domain of marketing – it is so fundamental to a business (as are all lower parts of a pyramid to keep it standing!) that they must be defined, designed and most importantly constantly tested by all functions to ensure that customer expectations are met and satisfied.

Finally, the bottom layer, like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, has a focus on the basics – the Engage layer. The Operations and Delivery is the core of the company, the engine room and also the point of real contact with customers at every stage in the customer journey. On the customer side this is represented by the Engagement and Understanding layer, a level that relates to how does a customer actually interact with the products or services provided. How does the product look and feel – is it a quality article? How was the interaction with the contact centre, did you find it easy to navigate and get what you wanted easily and quickly? Slightly less tangible but still not based on any higher levels of the tower, did you feel engaged with the company? This can be influenced by brand – take O2 for example, investing in the O2 Arena may associate some great event experiences with the brand and lead indirectly to a more positive engagement. However despite positive feelings, if the engagement fails at a practical level: a hard to navigate website, perhaps, or a marketing message that completely fails to relate to the consumption experience, then there will be a mis-match between the various layers of the customer experience tower. It is comparable to Maslow’s bottom layers of physiological and safety needs – unless you have this right the higher layers meeting aspirational ideals are really irrelevant and you will lose the customer sooner or later.

This, then, is a short summary of how the component layers of an organisation’s DNA, from the high level vision to the handling of a minor customer problem, have a direct match with how a customer related at all levels and the essence of success is threefold:

Connect the layers : make sure that your vision is being delivered in reality at the lowest levels as well as the top, or perhaps it is simpler to say make sure that every customer interaction, no matter how small, reflects your vision ideals. If not done, the vision is not credible

Compare and align frequently to the customer’s equivalent layers as far as possible. Make sure that your principles relate emotionally and your propositions match expectations

Optimise each level across the organisation, and also against your competition. The pan-organisational harmony is critical, there is no point in having a highly empathetic customer services team that relates to the customer’s emotions if the rest of the organisation fails in delivering promises made

In future articles we will look in detail at each layer and show how customer centricity is more than a focus on getting process, people and technology customer focused internally, important as these are. It must fundamentally align the organisation at all levels to connect, collect and retain customers in a highly competitive world. This is not simply management levels, we mean here the complete hierarchy of high level values to low level operations. Only by knowing the layers that shape and drive your organisation, and by being aware of the full conscious and unconscious things that drive customers can we make a significant difference in customer experience improvement.

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