Lead article – To be customer-centred, you must be clear who the customer is
It was great to be part of the CSPN convention this week, and see many familiar faces. It was encouraging to hear positive references to our customer centricity pilot work. There’s growing agreement that success requires focusing decisions on the customer.
“This strategy is first and foremost about meeting the needs of the customer, understanding what they need at different stages in their life” Sporting Future
“Sport England’s new investment strategy seeks to put the customer first” Tracey Crouch MP, Towards an Active Nation
But once clients have made the strategic decision to be customer-centred, I have a simple question. Who is THE customer? Who is the person or group you think about when putting customers at the heart of decision-making?
Who is the customer?
The DCMS and Sport England strategies are clear about their definition. It is the person doing, or not doing, sport and physical activity. The answer is also clear for many gyms, fitness franchises and mass participation events. It’s the people that pay to use their facilities or take part in their events.
For many NGBs, CSPs and other not-for-profit organisations, the question is a little harder. Staff often say the answer is obvious, but then go on to talk about different groups of people. So, who are the people and groups that are being considered as the customer, and why?
Staff – “I only work with other staff members. My team is internal-facing, so the people I work for are my customers”
Funders/Suppliers – “These organisations are providing significant funding or revenue. We couldn’t deliver our activities without them, so how can they not be our customers?”
Delivery partners – “Our customers are the delivery partners we work with and sell to. We can only reach the end participants if our delivery partners like the offers we are creating”.
Stakeholders – “They are our ultimate customer. They have the power to support or veto what we do, so we have to design programmes that they will support”
Participants – “The reason we exist is to enable people to do our sport. So those participants must be the customer”.
Taken individually these arguments make sense. All industries are complex, and having one definition feels like an over simplification. You could also argue that it’s all semantics. Whether we call the participants a customer, end customer or consumer doesn’t matter. Up to a point I would agree with you, the words are only labels.
However, you must be consistent about where you put those labels. It gets very confusing, if different teams put the customer label on a different group of people. Different people make different decisions based on different assumptions. Teams start running in different directions. Staff get very busy, and frustrated that others don’t share their views about what’s most important. The harsh reality of such inconsistency is that your organisation will collectively try to be all things to all people. But it will end up failing to deliver anything really well for anybody.
In contrast, a clear and shared definition of who the customer is – and isn’t – empowers people. It puts everybody on the same page. Work, priorities and decision-making align around a shared view of customer needs.
Customer-centred v customer service
So if having a clear and shared view of the customer has such benefits, why is it hard to achieve? The problem often stems from confusing the ideas of customer-centred and customer service. The dictionary definition of customer service is “the assistance and advice provided by a company to those people who buy or use its products or services”. In many organisations, all staff want to deliver a good service to the people they work with, internally or externally.
But providing someone with good service, is not the same as putting them the heart of decision-making. Customer-centred means making design decisions based on the needs of the customer. It means making strategic choices about who’s needs ‘break the tie’ when there’s a conflict.
My view is that the customer must be the end participant. The person taking part in sport or physical activity. Everyone else is still important, and collaborating with them is vital. But ultimately it’s the needs and expectations of the end participant that must be the focus. If we design for the participants, then we’ll never have a problem with ‘hard to reach groups’. “Hard to reach’ just means that they don’t want to engage with the existing product or service. Which means too much of it was designed to meet the needs of someone else.
Designing customer-led growth
Doing the hard work to agree a clear and shared view of THE customer, will transform your delivery. Individual staff can still deliver good customer service. But together, the organisation will be able to deliver great customer experiences.
Start by getting representatives from around the business in a room together. Ask them who they think the customer is, why they hold that view. Finally, ask about the implications of this decision. Do they get frustrated with other teams with different priorities?
Once everyone has shared their view, come to a decision. Getting agreement about who the customer is, and sticking to it, is more important than who you choose. The key is consistency. Getting everyone on the same page about who the customer is, and what they expect from you. Then it becomes much easier to make faster, more informed decisions.