We’re facing a crisis of customer centricity. Most companies recognize customers as the necessary focal point of business operations, but the philosophy tends to fall apart in the execution. To bridge the gap, we must first understand how brands interpret customer centricity and its ensuing actions, or lack thereof.
Typically, customer centricity is understood as “the ability of people in an organization to understand customers’ situations, perceptions, and expectations.” But this definition implies that merely meeting customer expectations is enough—and that is simply untrue. The reality is there is a vast chasm between customers’ expectations and their true needs as human beings. And reading between the lines of what our customers are saying, and their human needs will mean the difference between short-term transactions and deep-rooted customer loyalty. But how do we get there?
Bridging the Gap Between Customer Needs and Human Goals
Consider this: two people are shopping for shoes online. The first is looking for sneakers for his daughter that are attractive, durable, and affordable. The second is fresh out of college and looking for her first pair of “real job” shoes—attractive, durable, and affordable.
A traditional definition of customer centricity tells us that any retailer selling these two customers attractive, durable, and affordable shoes will have met their expectations and fulfilled their needs. But this notion only scratches the surface when it comes to addressing the unique needs of these two customers.
The first shopper isn’t just looking for shoes. He is looking to make a smart choice for his daughter, so he can be the best father he can be, making his daughter feel safe, loved, and accepted by her peers. The second shopper isn’t just looking for shoes, either. She wants to make a good impression, to be seen as smart, worldly, and attentive—someone to be taken seriously, even while she’s paying her dues in an entry-level position.
These unspoken desires are different than those you think of as “customer needs” like design, quality, and value. Rather, they create opportunities for brands to go beyond table stakes and help customers achieve their nuanced, human goals. These goals are more enduring than in-the-moment needs; they’re hard-wired into each individual consumer, and, if addressed authentically, allow brands to deliver real value. And in return, customers will feel a deeper sense of loyalty with that brand—a true reciprocal value exchange.
Why Customer Goals Stem from Deeply Held Values
Businesses often focus on “needs” like ease-of-use, convenience, and satisfaction. These are easy to define and measure, but they don’t tell us what really matters to consumers as humans. Narrowing your focus to these surface-level needs without digging deeper prevents brands from uncovering powerful human motivations. And it’s no surprise, focusing on surface-level needs yields a surface-level relationship. It’s one that’s easy to transact against, but it stalls any potential for long-standing trust and loyalty.
To become genuinely customer-centric, organizations must realize the need to understand their customers as humans and help them achieve what they aspire to. This starts with getting curious about customers’ values—the driving force for their goals.
Futurist Andy Hines, who has studied consumer trends through the lens of evolving values, describes values as our “views about what is most important in life that in turn guide decision-making and behavior… the ultimate decision-making criteria.” Our values are deeply-held and remain stable throughout our lives—and though they can change over time, they tend to do so slowly. We pursue the goals that we do in an effort to stay grounded with our fundamental values.
Human values—like making good decisions to protect our loved ones or showing the world that we’re determined to be successful—are more enduring than human needs. The magic happens when organizations invest in products and services that address these human values and facilitate an enduring ecosystem of reciprocal relationships between themselves and their customers as human beings.
You Can’t Pour from an Empty Cup—It Starts Internally
By now, we know that understanding our customers as humans is our ticket to achieving customer centricity—but we cannot forget our driving force to get us there—our employees. Consider the Covid-era “Great Resignation;” by the end of 2021, almost four million workers per month were leaving their jobs, a modern record. While many were motivated by higher salaries or career perks, countless others left “soul-crushing work” in pursuit of greater purpose. For them, money wasn’t the issue—it was something much deeper.
The working landscape looks completely different than two years ago, so believing the same retention practices that worked pre-Covid are going to work today will simply lead to lost talent and a whole lot of confusion.
It’s not enough to offer “new and improved” products to consumers, or higher salaries to employees. We have to interact with them in ways that resonate with their values.
Changing Your Approach Can Start Now
The businesses that will move the needle in our new landscape are the ones that focus not only on extracting value from customers (and employees), but on honoring human values—both in the products and services they offer, and in their own culture and purpose. In the spirit of human-to-human marketing, these companies will see their customers as “humans first and customers second.”
In a world forever changed by the COVID-19 pandemic, people are re-evaluating their relationships—with each other, and with the brands they do business with. Now is the time for organizations to step up to the plate and make a meaningful shift in how they foster those relationships. Because while the nature of human values is such that no brand will ever be able to address them fully—that father purchasing shoes for his daughter won’t stop striving to be a good dad when he finds the right sneakers—showing him that his goals and values are understood will build the basis for lasting brand loyalty.
As published in Forbes.