The Foundational Work of Becoming Customer-Obsessed

Credit: DigitalVision / Getty Images by Hiroshi Watanabe

Like any good business concept, the phrase “customer obsession” has taken on a life of its own in recent years. The concept came forcefully into vogue in 2016, when Amazon’s Jeff Bezos described the concept of “true customer obsession” within his annual letter to shareholders. Since then, this notion has been aspirational for most corporate leaders and organizations. Now, in the COVID-19 era, the ability to anticipate and adapt to the changing needs of our customers and help them through this crisis is a necessity.

A lot of company leaders today will tell you that their organization is already customer obsessed. But how many are really walking the talk? As Bezos pointed out in his 2016 letter, “Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it.” Therein lies a key distinction. To be truly customer obsessed, rather than merely customer focused, a company’s approach to its relationship with the customer should be proactive, not reactive. It’s the difference between simply responding to a customer’s request versus giving that person something of value that they didn’t even know they wanted yet.

Customer obsession is more than a mindset. It’s an established way of working and operating within an organization and, as one might imagine, it’s not just a switch you can flip internally. Becoming customer obsessed requires a great deal of foundational work to be successful, but it’s work that can — and must — be done in parallel with everyday operations, even in the most trying of business climates. At Resonate, we didn’t invent customer obsession, but we have undertaken the journey required to put it at our core and are continuing that journey to this day. For those looking to make a similar transition, these are the key steps required.

Put Data at the Center of Everything

Quite simply, if a company is going to put its customers at the center of its business, it needs to stop relying on “gut instinct” when it comes to understanding who its customers are and what they care about. It must instead seek out and cultivate accurate, up-to-date sources of data and insights that reveal the reality of its customer base, its prospects, and how those change over time. In other words, before you can become customer-obsessed, you must become data-driven.

Develop Actionable Personas

A foundation in customer data is table stakes for becoming customer obsessed. But if a company is going to truly obsess over its customers, it also needs to understand who they are — not just from a demographic and psychographic perspective, but also in terms of the motivations and values that are driving them to do business with the company. Without this detailed understanding, a company’s efforts to deepen its customer commitment and transform its approach will be rudderless.

Once a company has access to deep insights that include drivers of customer behavior, that data needs to be made actionable across the company. The best way to do this is to develop customer personas that can be shared and understood across departments. These personas should be specific enough to be useful, but also broad enough that the entire company can recognize the personas in the context of their day-to-day jobs.

Executives and employees outside of the marketing department are likely to have less exposure to the concept of personas than individuals within the marketing department, so it’s important to make a company’s customer personas approachable and easily understandable. Give them names and personalities. Leave the marketing-speak at the door and help everyone in the company, no matter their department, understand who these customers are and what they want from your organization.

Map the Customer Journey

With personas in hand, companies also need to do the work of mapping these customers to their individual journeys. That means understanding how customers find and ultimately decide to transact with a given brand. Where does their awareness of the company begin? In what channels are they spending their time? And, importantly, what’s their experience with the company once they sign on the dotted line and become a customer? A proper understanding of the customer journey should start at awareness and extend all the way through to a company’s billing and customer loyalty efforts.

Cultivate the Right Internal Culture

This final step is, understandably, the most daunting. Once a company has a firm understanding of its customers and has done the work of developing personas and a customer journey map, it’s time to take those insights out to the broader company.

Transitioning to a customer-obsessed culture often starts with a group-by-group assessment of how each department is currently thinking about its relationships with customers. Based on that knowledge, the team that’s leading the customer obsession transition can develop a tactical plan for educating teams on what being customer obsessed truly means and how it’s going to manifest in their day-to-day roles. As a part of this, the executive team also needs to empower its employees to make and act on more decisions that can have a beneficial impact on the day-to-day customer experience.

As employees across an organization increasingly hear the drumbeat of “customer obsession” across many meetings and conversations, be prepared to hear quips along the lines of, “So, are we customer-obsessed yet?” The question might come in jest, but it’s also an opportunity to reinforce a key concept: Customer obsession is a journey, not a destination. If you ever start to think you’ve “arrived,” then it’s time to revisit the above steps and ask yourself how you can anticipate the needs of your customers even better than you do today.