Customer-centricity: are we still ‘In Search of Excellence’?

Do you remember the Eighties? Big hair, shoulder pads and Tom Peters and Robert Waterman recommending customer obsession. Is it time for an 'In Search of Excellence' revival?

I was recently clearing out some books when I came across In Search Of Excellence, the seminal book from Peters and Waterman, first published in 1982. They argue that excellent companies are characterised by customer-centricity, elegantly defined as when ‘customers intrude into every nook and cranny of the business’.

I was struck by how familiar it sounded. How contemporary. Had I not told you this book was written in the 1980s, would you have guessed it was written more than 30 years ago?  

Chapter 6, ‘Close to the customer’ begins:

“...why does a chapter like this need to be written at all? The answer is that, despite all the lip service...the customer is either ignored or considered a bloody nuisance.

Lew Young, Editor-in Chief of Business Week.

Peters and Waterman praise companies obsessed with service, quality, tailoring their propositions, and listening to customers. I wondered: have more companies now changed the way they operate to deliver these obsessions? It’s arguably more important with today’s heightened customer expectations. I asked Tom Peters his perspective via Twitter, and will let you know if he responds.

Looking at the briefs we receive, I believe that, yes, most companies have improved, but they can still do more. 

They acknowledge the need to build relationships with consumers and customers across the ecosystem. They recognise the importance of insightfulness into what will create value for these customers. However, most still struggle to let the customers 'intrude in every nook and cranny’ of the organisation. Where companies get it right – be it P&G for listening, Disney for customer experience, or Amazon with its customer-first culture – they catch the light like precious stones.

What's hard is moving from a well-intentioned mission statement into the reality of placing customers at the centre of every single business decision.

The key ingredient for change is not process or IT systems but people. And this is what Peters and Waterman knew too. Leaders must create the relationships, culture and everyday conversations that make customer-centred growth happen. Some leaders pay lip service to the customer, but continue to set targets driven by internal operational concerns. The result is confusion. I recall one client telling me that while their business leader told them to focus on customers’ needs, in reality the way to get approval was to deliver as many campaigns as possible. It was activity that counted, not insightfulness.

We all know the feeling that we’ve played a trump card in a discussion when we do remind people of customer needs and motivations. We just need to do it routinely and enable others to do so too, if we want to make sure it is our companies, and not just the P&G, Disney and Amazons of the world,  that are held up as examples of excellence in years to come.

To find out more about our views on customer-centred leadership and customer-centred organisations, please do get in touch, or explore our Views and Ideas.

You may be particularly interested in watching our recent interviews below with easyJet’s Group Commercial Director: Customer, Product & Marketing Peter Duffy and David Wheldon, current WFA President speaking as Head of Brand, Reputation & Citizenship at Barclays Group who share what they’re doing to put customer-centred practice at the heart of their business.


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We work with companies across the world to lift the performance of their teams to drive growth by delivering better value for their customers.