Everywhere you’ll hear companies saying they want to be customer-centric, hospitals saying they want to be patient-centric, associations saying they want to be member-centric… But this can’t be just lip service – it’s a revolutionary idea, not to be taken lightly.

Nonetheless, this term is thrown around pretty glibly. If this kind of language is to be found lurking in your own mission statement or strategic plan or marketing materials, what exactly are you doing to organize yourself around it?

Most organizations haven’t through through what it takes to even begin to see things from the point of view of those they serve – here are some suggestions to start with:

  1. Ask them! Ask them early, ask them often, ask them in different ways. Don’t make it too onerous for them to answer – if you are going to ask them to fill in a survey or do an interview, promise it will be short, keep that promise, and offer them something in return. Don’t ask questions that assume an obsessive interest in your products or services – ask questions about their work, their frustrations, their jobs.  The goal isn’t to get detailed feedback on your performance – you’re trying to understand what it is to walk in their shoes. Take a step back from the detail. It’s not enough to ask insiders, either.
  2. Observe them. Use the data they give you. This means maximizing the leverage you can get from your CRM data, website analytics, service and operations data, and publically available information. Enormous value is left on the table by not doing this, and, given the analytic capabilities available now, there’s no real excuse for doing a half-baked job of this. Get good at it. Do your homework. Outsource the analytics if need be. But always know how incomplete this part of the data will be.
  3. Hang out with them.  Years ago I heard the publisher of major women’s magazine talk about doing a tubside tour with women to understand how they interacted with products. These women showed her around their houses and their bathrooms. They talked about what they bought, what they used, how they used it, and what they thought of it. This kind of research can yield insights you won’t get from a straight survey on the products in someone’s bathroom. Walk a mile in their shoes – still good advice.
  4. Look through their eyes. Most marketing efforts are measured by platform – email marketing, social media, websites, etc. It’s rare for an organization to think along segment lines. If I’m a certain type of prospect or client or member, what did they get from the organization this year? Six emails and one phone call? No phone calls and one email asking for a commitment? One survey and one reminder that their contract is coming up for renewal and a 20-minute wait on hold to get service? A welcome call and three upselling emails in the first month after purchase and then nothing? If you don’t have this analysis and voice of the customer/segment role in your company, think about creating it. Which leads us to…
  5. Organize around it. Are you organized in a way that makes it easy or difficult for your employees to take the perspective of – let alone advocate for – your customers, clients, patients or members? Do you need to move people and functions around so that, for instance, operations and marketing sit together and think from a customer’s point of view? Do you have client advocates? How good are your processes if there’s a complaint? What do you do to help your employees get to know your customer base?
  6. Involve them. Do you involve the end user, ie your clients or members, in this process? How? How early? Early enough? Really? (Look at #6 for a particularly horrifying example of design failure.) Do you use the empathy needed to really understand their perspective?
  7. Make it matter. You’ll have to take a look at how you measure success, both overall and for individuals. Customer delight, member loyalty, patient outcomes – have you thought about the right measures, have you invested in being able to get that data, and do you use these kinds of measures to help your staff and volunteers understand what matters in a client/member/patient-centric organization?
  8. Talk about it. Now, this is a bit tricky. Too often, this kind of thing becomes a communication exercise – and nothing more. Make sure you’re doing the right things, and then maybe – maybe – talk about it. If you’re getting this stuff right, it will naturally spill into the ways you speak about your work and your organization.

This idea of being X-centric (where X = client, customer, patient, member) is already well on its way to becoming just a square on buzzword bingo, because it is used by organizations that haven’t thought through what it means and aren’t prepared to do what it takes to make it real. If you want the payoff in terms of loyalty and quality that you can get by really being centred around the people you serve, then go for it – just don’t pretend it’s a quick fix.