CDPa founder Sebastian DiGrande helps companies develop customer-centric business strategies for a living, and throughout his career, he’s seen businesses at every stage of maturity. Drawing on Sebastian’s extensive experience as a senior executive, consultant, and board member, we spoke with him to learn more about the best way to start a journey towards customer-centricity.
CDPa: Can you tell us a little about some of your experiences with building customer-centric organizations? What are the different levels of maturity you’ve seen during your time as a consultant and executive?
Sebastian DiGrande: I’ve seen companies at very different stages of customer-centricity. When I began working with one retailer, the word “customer” was used, but that was the extent of the level of maturity. References to the customers were based on what the company wanted them to be, rather than data on who the customer actually was.
In other cases, I worked with traditional wholesaler companies that wanted to go direct. Their executives recognized that for them to shift their focus, they needed to be more customer-centric. As a result, these organizations were in better shape and had an easier path to the end because they started with the right mindset and behaviors.
CDPa: In those organizations that were starting from a less mature position, what were some of the first steps you took to move forward?
SDG: The first step is often to build some muscle and accumulate a foundation, even before engaging with the rest of the organization. At large-scale companies, there’s often a lot of raw data on the customer that’s simply not being looked at or being organized in a way that would allow us to draw insights from it. Creating information from the data is the first step.
The second step is to use the relevant teams, whether that’s the data analysis team, strategy team, or loyalty team, to begin to drive one or two actionable insights that can be communicated to the core functions of the business. These then inform and influence the business’s more traditional decision-making processes, and that’s when change happens.
CDPa: And what do things look like in terms of maturity once you’ve accomplished some of those early victories?
SDG: When we’ve finished gleaning insights from data, we begin to institutionalize analytics and decision-making through the customer lens into many core functions. At that point, the marketing or sales organizations are already asking the right questions — they aren’t waiting to be told what to do by the analytics teams.
CDPa: If you had to start from scratch building a customer-centric operation in a new organization today, what would you do differently from some of your earlier experiences?
SDG: I would concentrate less on the first six to 18 months. In that period, it’s just about getting liftoff and getting through the first couple of gates in maturity. I would focus on recognizing that even when you have proven the efficacy of customer metrics, it’s still not a self-sustaining model at that stage. It can very easily regress if you don’t constantly reinforce the importance of putting the customer first. True customer-centricity requires constant care and feeding.
I’ve seen regression when companies were being pressed to deliver short-term results and they responded by using the strategies and tactics they were used to. The customer data may have suggested a more restrained approach, but historical biases won out because “it’s what we’ve always done.” The problem with old-school cultures is they have every opportunity to say, “you didn’t prove it, it can’t possibly be true.” You know you haven’t achieved the level of maturity you want when people are questioning the validity of the data itself, rather than the meaning of the data.
CDPa: Not every organization will have the scale and resources of a nationally-known brand. What is your advice to a smaller organization that is overwhelmed by this process and doesn’t know where to begin?
SDG: In many ways, those organizations have an easier path forward if they start in the right place; they don’t have to overcome the layers of scar tissue and legacy. Instead, they can set the tone from day one in terms of what’s going to matter most, what they’re going to measure, and what they will reward.
Companies with a smaller capacity should pick one or two key areas where they focus on being more customer-driven. Don’t try to solve the end-to-end customer-centricity process from day one. Instead, pick a product or marketing issue that you want to tackle first, put your energy into that, and use that as the standard for future efforts. Build momentum, credibility, and buy-in. This should actually be part of the strategy in the big enterprises as well, but in a small enterprise you don’t have the bandwidth to fight on multiple fronts. Instead, find the one or two where you can have a quick, tangible impact and build off that.
Do you want to learn more about the stages of customer-centric maturity? Visit our recent Playbook: “Getting Your Customer-Centric Transformation Started”.