There are a multitude of reasons why you should consider your customers first but it’s not always clear whether you are on track and moving in the right direction.
Here are some signs that your organisation may have wandered off the path to a customer-first strategic approach, indicating that there is further work to be done to properly align your business.
1. Your mission statement is tied to your assets, products, or offerings
Your mission statement is, or should be, the guiding principle of your business, a statement that outlines your goals and captures the essence of who you are. It is an integral part of your strategy, providing direction and meaning for your organisation and staff, and outlining your value to your customers.
A strong mission statement should indicate how you solve the needs of your customers not just how your organisation is going to succeed or what features your product has.
Does the mission statement below show that this business is focusing on their customers? Does it indicate how they make their customer’s lives better in some way?
"We will build a unique portfolio of Beauty and related brands, striving to surpass our competitors in quality, innovation and value, and elevating our image to become the Beauty company most women turn to worldwide." — Avon
Notice the company focus in this statement – ‘We will build’, ‘we will surpass’, ‘we will elevate our image’ – and even when the customers are mentioned it is in the context of what they desire the customer to do for the business.
How about this one?
"By creating value for our customers, we create value for our shareholders. We use our expertise to create transport-related products and services of superior quality, safety and environmental care for demanding customers in selected segments. We work with energy, passion and respect for the individual." — Volvo
Product-first or business-first mission statements may seem logical but they are myopic, looking at a company’s attributes, not its core values; at physical assets, not intrinsic worth; at features, not benefits; and ignoring the most important aspect of business – the customer.
A well-crafted customer-first mission statement clearly and simply tells everyone what you value, not just what you do, and how this will help your customers.
"Our mission is to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more." — Microsoft
Can you understand the organisation’s goal? Does it seem valuable or beneficial to their intended customers? Your mission statement doesn’t need to be wordy or complex. Often the simplest most straightforward statements have the most impact.
"To save people money so they can live better." — Walmart
Do you want to save money? Do you want to live better? Most people can likely agree that they do. Simple. Direct. A clear benefit to the customer.
If this strikes a chord, regroup and review your mission statement. A product or business-first mission statement not only points to potential misalignment but can be an indicator that you may need to revisit your core value proposition and strategy.
2. You are focused on constantly improving your product
While desiring to create the best product seems intuitive, focusing single-mindedly on making changes and improvements to your products for the sake of improvement is not a customer-first strategy.
While customers certainly want and appreciate quality, adding more features in a vacuum does not truly serve your customers. Instead of focusing on creating the best product, or adding more features, you should strive to find and deliver the best solution for your customer’s needs.
It might be a red flag if your company or product development team is focused on how you can best improve a product without looking at the bigger picture of how you can improve customer’s lives.
Known as ‘feature creep’, ongoing revisions and additions to a product often complicate its use, cause customer confusion, and disregard a product’s core functions, overlooking why people were using it in the first place. This can put off your customers and this type of ongoing iteration is often a bandage that disguises a more pressing issue, an inability to execute on the core value of your product, or to properly define that value in the first place.
Ultimately, no amount of knowledge, skill, or technology is going to improve a product that doesn’t solve a problem or fill a need. If your product is already doing so, you are better served by focusing on your customers and being the best at serving that specific need.
"Your product is designed to solve a problem. If you’re adding a feature that doesn’t contribute to the solution, you may be wasting your time and worsening your product in the process."
— Neil Patel
Looking for tips on how to utilise a customer-centric approach in your product development cycle? Check out this helpful article.
3. You are trying to be everything to everyone
While helping your customers should be of paramount concern, many organisations take this a step too far and give in to the pressure of trying to please everyone... of catering to too many disparate groups of people or of attempting to fill widely varying needs.
At its core, attempting to meet the needs or desires of every possible type of customer is an exercise in futility. As they say, “You can’t please all of the people, all of the time.”
Not only that, it dilutes your brand and splits your focus because you are trying to solve for everyone instead of focusing on your core values. By trying to evolve your products or offerings to serve an ever-growing set of needs, you wind up not serving any.
…at least not well.
There is an old saying ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. So, if you want to be the best at something, focus on your key strengths, the ones where you excel… the ones that best serve your core customer base. After all, the essence of strategy is not only what you do but also deciding what not to do. Take 5 minutes to read Creating Great Strategies, particularly the section on 'Statement of Strategy'.
Realistically, most problems require a tool that can handle a specific job and do it really, really well… not a tool that is a mediocre solution for a variety of jobs. While trying to be the ‘Swiss Army knife’ solution where you are everything to everyone might seem like a good idea, it keeps you from focusing on what you actually do best, and on the customers who that ‘best’ truly serves.
After all, how many of those tools in that ‘Swiss Army knife’ do you really use?
4. You are constantly chasing innovation
Everyone wants to be on the leading edge, to be an up-and-comer, to wow people with the latest technology and slickest features.
However, it is easy to fall prey to the desire to look at innovation as a vehicle to develop new products and not as a means to fulfil new needs (or to fulfil old needs in a better way). If you find yourself looking internally for the capabilities to develop new products instead of externally to seek out which of your customers’ needs are not being met, then you are not thinking of those customers first.
Executives and product engineers are notorious for living by the mantra of "if you build it, they will come", which focuses on innovating a product without assessing customer needs, then presumes that this will somehow result in people clamouring for a piece of a pie that they had no interest in eating to begin with.
While they are not alone, technology companies seem to be especially prone to seeking innovation just for the sake of innovation. A perfect example is Myspace, the social media platform, which entered the market with a huge jump on the online social media phenomena. However, as people’s use of the platform grew and their need for a social networking medium became apparent, MySpace still continued to focus on innovating their product as a portal for music and entertainment, instead of recognising what its customers really wanted and needed… a digital networking platform that let them connect with other people. This led to a swift decline in users and the eventual subjugation of the platform by the current giants of social media, Facebook and Twitter.
5. Your staff organisation and reward structures are product-based
As an organisation gets larger, there is a natural proclivity to segment it into a structure that is arranged around product segments, and then reward staff for innovation within those segments. This can quickly lead to problems that can muddy the waters and confound your commitment to a customer-first strategy.
Segmenting your organisation along product groups isolates staff in product-oriented silos, where collaboration is often difficult or not considered, leading them to lose sight of the big picture and focus only on their specific product segment, often to the detriment of all else.
This singularity of focus can lead to an ongoing decline in communication, ideas, and creativity as people zero in on what is right in front of them. They become stagnant and struggle to innovate outside, and even inside, their product segment and lose sight of what should be their primary driver… the customer.
Seeing this decline, management often seeks to remedy the slump by implementing a system that rewards innovation.
Positive reinforcement is a powerful motivator and people will embrace behaviours that bring notice and reward. By focusing on innovating in a vacuum without considering customer needs, a vicious cycle can quickly form where staff are constantly striving to develop great solutions.
…for customer needs that don’t exist.
Instead, organise for collaboration, where teams work together across segments, products, and projects to generate real value. Encourage market research, feedback processing, and customer care… then reward the development of customer-first initiatives and insights into your customers’ motivations and needs.
6. You assess your customers’ needs through the lens of your existing products
Value Proposition Design explores customer needs by investigating their motivations through their pains, gains, and jobs to be done. It then encourages you to develop the aspects of your product or service that can solve for those customer needs, or realign to develop new solutions that can.
However, many companies start from the wrong direction, looking at their products or services first, then working backwards to find pains, gains, and jobs that fit their existing offerings. This feeds a bias toward the product and disregards customers’ needs by failing to consider the true nature of their problems and what you, or your product, can do to solve them.
By looking at your offerings first, you are neglecting to consider the full scope of your customers’ needs, the underlying motivations that drive them to purchase, and how that forms and impacts their buyer’s journey. Without fully exploring and addressing these core drivers, you cannot genuinely align with the customer, which can lead to further failures down the road.
As proud as you may be of your products, you should endeavour to set them aside and assess everything from a fresh perspective… the customers’ perspective.
For example, if you make automobiles and only assess your customer’s needs from the perspective of your product, you are likely to forget that they have other choices of transportation that may affect their decisions… such as cycling, the bus, or walking.
You could also be focusing on things that really aren’t that important to the customer, that are nice to have but not essential. Instead, step into their shoes and look at everything from their perspective. This will help you align your value with their requirements and lead to benefits on both sides of the equation.
Where to from here?
In order to truly provide value to your customers constantly ask ‘why?’. Explore the entire picture from every angle, consider their unique needs, and map out how you and your products can help fill the void.
Want to read more on customer first? Try 11 Common Misconceptions about Customer First Strategy