What Does It Really Mean to be Customer-Centric? A Lesson in Irrational Thinking


In the past, we’ve written about customer-centric business practices, from listening posts and direct feedback to surveys and brick-and-mortar insights. As a result, we believed that to be considered “customer-centric,” you needed to listen better and empathize more with the struggles of your customer. Then, while completing Seth Godin’s altMBA program (which we highly recommend), we came across an interview with MIT fellow and author Michael Schrage who argued that to be customer-centric you must invest in your customers to improve their competencies and capabilities, as well as to enrich your own human capital. He asked, “Who do you want your customers to become?”

Clearly, answering this question requires more than simply listening. In fact, Schrage argues that you should focus more on how you might make your customers valuable by investing in their personal transformations. “Who are you asking your customers to become by the innovations you put out there, with them, and for them?” he asked.  Seth Godin himself might add: “Who are you trying to change with this work? From what to what? And how will you know if it’s working?” 

Now, you might be thinking: “That’s great and all, but what if my customers don’t want to do that? What if they don’t wish to transform?” 

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely argues that the decisions we often make are not our decisions at all. They’re actually made by design. For example, in his TEDTalk Are We in Control of Our Own Decisions?, Ariely points out the differences between similar countries when it comes to organ donation. He explains that the reason some countries have larger numbers of donors isn’t because of cultural norms or generosity levels, but because of how a single question on a DMV form is constructed. It may appear that certain citizens of certain countries are making highly informed decisions regarding what happens to their organs after death, when in reality, they’re simply not checking a single box - making them automatically enrolled in the program. In other words, the decision itself is an illusion. 

As Ariely points out, this question is especially difficult to answer - should you be an organ donor or not - because it’s extremely complex. There are too many variables to consider. “And it’s so complex that we don’t know what to do…and because we have no idea what to do, we just pick whatever it was that was chosen for us.” And because we don’t actually know our personal preferences very well, we as human beings are susceptible to these outside influences. Moreover, we have a wide range of motivations that guide us, often in conflicting ways. In his research, Ariely discovered that human beings have a tremendous capacity for caring about other people and the society they live in; yet it’s very easy to get pulled in various directions for a plethora of reasons. 

If I were to distill one main lesson from the research described in this book, it’s that we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend. We usually think of ourselves as sitting in the driver’s seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we make and the direction our life takes; but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires - and how we want to view ourselves - than with reality.
— Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational

Similarly, American psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that the reason we freeze up and allow decisions to be made for us is because we are paralyzed by the abundance of choice itself. During his TEDTalk, The Paradox of Choice, he pointed out that nowadays we have to choose what kind of person we want to be every morning, that everything is up for grabs, and that life itself has become a matter of choice, all with seemingly infinite possibilities. He then outlined the three negative effects this abundance of choice is having on our lives:

For starters, it paralyzes us. There are so many options to choose from, how can we ever choose the perfect option? This makes it far more likely that we won’t choose anything at all, which in turn makes us yearn for others to make tough decisions for us. 

Then, if we do end up making a choice, we’re unsatisfied with the results. Schwartz argues that even if we end up making a good decision, we often can’t help but wonder if we made the best decision. This leads to regret and buyer’s remorse, no matter what we choose. And since everything comes with a high opportunity cost, that cost reduces an overall level of satisfaction because we could have chosen something else. 

And finally, this abundance of choice causes an unhealthy escalation of expectations. Now, even if we do manage to choose an option, we’re unsatisfied with it, unsurprised by the experience, and disgruntled when it fails to be perfect. And because what we chose, however good, is not perfect, we often begin to blame ourselves for choosing poorly. This then leads to depression because we cannot reach our own impossibly high standards, and “good” is no longer “good enough.”

The secret to happiness is low expectations.
— Barry Schwartz 

So, in a sense, customers are already being transformed through their experience with you, but more often than not, it’s in a negative way simply because there are so many other options out there. How can you reverse this? How can you make your customer believe that you are the best option for their personal preferences? How can you help them become who they want to be? 

To go back to Dan Ariely’s research: he said that “if you get somebody to behave in a certain way one time, you’re not just influencing them that once, but you can actually go on to influence a long sequence of decisions…that’s why it’s important to influence the first decisions people make in a certain category.” Really think about this. 

Not only do you need to be the first to market and the first to achieve product-market fit - if you’re lucky - but now you also need to be the first to influence a customer either way. That’s a very, very tall order. How can you possibly compete? 

Ariely seems to say that the best solution is to facilitate the path of least resistance. In other words, make it as easy as possible for a living, breathing human being to choose your offer. Not only listen to what they have to say, but streamline their engagement with you too. Why? Because human attention is both scarce and fleeting, and if you’re ever going to transform your customer from one type of person to the another kind they aspire to be, you need to be crystal clear going in. 

To help you with this, let's turn to Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. Here was his advice for creating a streamlined customer experience online:

  1. Make sure whatever you’re designing works intuitively so that anyone can do what they need to do without getting frustrated. 
  2. Make everything self-evident. If you have to explain it, simplify it until you don’t. 
  3. Don’t make customers think. They’re not looking to solve a puzzle to interact with you. 
  4. Don’t waste their time either. Get to the point - QUICK. 
  5. Humans are creatures of habit, so don’t ask them to change their behavior. Go with the flow. 
  6. Your customers don’t have time for small talk. Eliminate as much fluff as possible. 
  7. Make it easy for your customers to start over. READ: Have an easily accessible HOME button on your site. 

In summary: Being customer-centric is so much more than just listening. You have to understand the irrational behavior, emotional core, and various motivations that drive your customers as human beings. And you need to do more than simply empathize with their problem in relation to your solution. You must also empathize with the struggle they experience every day in the form of information overload, an abundance of choice, and the lack of a rational foundation to stand on. The future is uncertain in more ways than one. Make your offer the clear solution with a simple yet transformative customer experience so that you’re the more attractive solution.