Building customer centricity

by 02 May 2012

A few years ago, I was interviewing people about why they regularly chose a certain hotel chain. One guest in his mid-forties told me this story:

He and his wife were celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary. They were visiting a city they both loved and had carefully planned a very full weekend, with tickets to a different play or performance every night. Unfortunately, their arriving flight was so delayed that they didn’t reach the hotel until after 9pm. Their first evening’s plans were ruined and I imagine they were visibly disheartened. About 10 minutes after checking in, they called down to order room service. When the food arrived, the tray included a complimentary bottle of wine, chocolates and a selection of romantic movies for them to watch in their room, along with a thoughtful note from the receptionist. A lifelong brand loyalty was born.

It was a good story, but I was intrigued by the detail about the movies. What did he mean when he said they were on the tray? Were they DVDs? I knew the hotel had switched to in-room pay-per-view some years back. The guest clarified: on the tray were VIDEO CASSETTES. This story was already more than 10 years old when I heard it. And when I asked if he remembered which movie they watched, the guest was confident: they hadn’t actually watched any of them. It was the gesture he remembered.

So a frequent traveller, with rewards membership to every imaginable hotel chain, was continuing to prefer one particular brand on every trip, 10 years later, because of a movie he didn’t even watch. It was a terrific illustration of what psychologists call ‘flashbulb memories’ – when strong emotional context sears a moment into our memory and gives it disproportionate significance. Builders of powerful customer experiences make a special effort to seize those moments.

But the most intriguing moment is actually hidden inside that story. Let’s imagine the camera lingering in the hotel lobby, after our tired and disappointed couple leaves the reception desk. There was probably another guest waiting to check in, plus any number of other tasks to attend to, but some part of the receptionist’s brain was still thinking about the couple. She was asking herself: “what can we do to make their evening better?”

Every business must wrestle with how to make that moment happen: how to help staff see things from a customer perspective and then do something useful with that insight. Customer-centric thinking is essential for all organisations, not just service and retail businesses.

Thinking of others comes naturally to some people, but sadly not to everyone. So many businesses hire for specific characteristics like empathy. In last December’s HBR, there was a fascinating article about how the Tata group in India goes out into small country towns to hire staff for their Taj Hotels, asking schools to recommend young people on the basis of their “respect for elders” and “cheerfulness”, among other things.

In fact, most of us have some consideration for others, at least for friends and loved ones; we just may not extend this consideration to everyone we meet. But some simple tactics can help staff to see customers as more than a flow of anonymous strangers, and encourage them to treat customers as part of their personal circle. 

Inviting customers in to speak to the team, for example, or regularly sharing customer insights and feedback can make the relationship feel more personal to staff. Measuring customer satisfaction and linking it to bonuses or promotions certainly helps. So does engaging staff in improving the customer experience:regularly asking them to place themselves in their customers’ shoes in order to recommend changes to the way things are done. It’s also very important that the leadership team doesn’t become cut off from the customer perspective, as their day-to-day roles move them further from the front-line.

Whatever the tactics, the key is to reframe the organisational discourse,from a customer perspective and to focus all aspects of strategy and operations on that priority. In customer-centric organisations, every three-year plan, every set of corporate goals, every awards night, every meeting agenda boils down to“what can we do to make this better for our customer?”

About the author

Kate Messenger is director, Meme Partners.  For further information visit