Six common reasons why ‘customer centricity’ initiatives fail


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Guest post by Richard Whiteley

Richard is the author of The Customer-Driven Company, Customer-Centered Growth, Love the Work You’re With and, most recently, The Corporate Shaman. He is a co-founder of The Forum Corporation and winner of the Instructional Systems Association Distinguished Service Award. Richard is a long-time consultant and advisor of Uplifting Service.


Over the many years of working with organizations to help them become ‘customer centered’, I have witnessed a number of successes as well as failures. By understanding why these well-intentioned initiatives fail and looking for common causes we are able to address them early in the planning process for future initiatives and thus increase the odds of success.

The six most common reasons for failure I have seen throughout my career are these:

1.    Past Success

“Nothing fails like success.” In a moderately successful organization, when things are running “well enough”, senior managers do not want to risk their careers by championing a new way of being. They realize that changing the culture of an organization is like changing its DNA and they simply don’t want to take that on.

Lou Gerstner, reflecting on his turnaround at IBM said, “Organizations don’t change because people don’t want to change,” and all too often those “people” are the ones at the top.

In the absence of enlightened leadership that sees new opportunities, a burning platform is needed to create the motivation to set out in a new direction. There has to be a compelling and widely understood reason for change without which people will give significant lip service backed up by woefully little real action as they just go through the motions phantom change.

2.    Uncommitted Leaders

I have never met a senior executive who says “Customers? Who needs them!?” Every leader knows how important it is to clearly identify customer segments, understands their needs and deliver solutions consistently and reliably.

Most leaders, however, do not demonstrate the level of commitment required. They are not the role models we need to see. Successful leaders, on the other hand, dive into the details and take full responsibility for creating an engaging environment where every individual is willing and able to fulfill the vision and mission of the organization.

3.    No Voice of the Customer

In this case the organization is not “hardwired” to its customers and prospects. Important service and product decisions are based on assumptions and 2nd or 3rd hand information. The few powerful metrics that have the greatest impact on the successful execution of the organization’s strategy are all too often either not measured or, if measured, not shared with all employees.

4.    Organizational Silos

In the increasingly complex environments in which we work today, no single job, department or function can succeed without significant levels of collaboration.

“Lateral listening,” and working closely with internal service partners are vital to making and keeping marketplace promises. This is the foundation of building a successful ‘customer-centered’ service culture and yet all too often inappropriate incentives drive us to withhold information and compete internally.

5.    Inadequate Education

Senior executives often get all pumped up and excited by the allure of being customer centered. They then announce to all employees that the game is now about making customers happy and that everyone should do a better job in this area.

The big mistake these executives make is to believe that improving customer service is simply a matter of announcing that there is a new game and after that it is merely an employee attitude and motivation issue.

What they fail to realize is that while mindset matters, great service needs great skillsets, too. The new service behaviors required for success definitely require thoughtful, targeted education. In most cases they are not innate or natural. Management can provide generous incentives or onerous threats to shape employee behavior but without proper training such actions will not move the customer delight needle one bit. In effect they are incentivizing people to do things they are not yet able to do. Proper training is required.

6.    “It’s not my job”

Executives and employees alike often believe that just because the organization has a customer satisfaction department or a marketing team that gathers customer data, “customer service” is taken care of and they don’t have to worry about it.

Successful organizations realize that delighting customers is every employee’s job. And when one embraces the concept of the internal customer, it is clear that everyone in the organization has at least one “real” customer who relies on him/her to provide a product or service that is vital to delighting an external customer somewhere down the line.

Which of these common reasons for failure might be lurking inside your organization? The first step to preempt them from derailing your efforts to become a customer centered organization is to recognize and admit that they might exist. The second step is to audit each of the six common reasons and determine the extent to which each of them might be an inhibiting factor for your organization. This might best be done in a group using a 5 point scale (0=not a problem, 5=major issue) to determine the degree each of the six will need corrective action. And, of course, the last step is to identify and take the corrective action.

Categories: Service Culture
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12 Responses

  1. Yvonne says:

    Agree to all points …

    The sales and marketing people are just interested to push the customer to the after sales services dept and expect them to meet their every demand. What they almost always fail to do is to educate the customer. Whilst it is good to delight customers by giving in to unreasonable customers’ demands, without first and foremost educating them only leads to more future problems/demands.. Educating the customer is the job for the sales and marketing people but they are either not there after a sale is completed or have no skillsets to manage the customer. Usually, a customer gets upset if he is unable to understand the treatment of their complaint.

  2. MeThinkingLoud says:

    I usually like to dine in a restaurant that is run by a family. Every crew( front or back of the house )recognizes it is the family’s responsibility to serve the customer to delight. This type of zero star family run diners have better customer skill than some 5-star places where the mindset is still it is the kictchen’s problem, not my problem as long as I wear a smile to greet my customers.
    The organization today is missing the soul of family ownership and Tai-Chi style of pushing ownership is the root to customer disatisfaction.

  3. Bernie Utchenik says:

    This is a wonderful article! I realize more about what you’re saying everyday.
    Although realizing this, it is still a huge stone to roll to get people to accept the reality of where service is centered and how to make it part of the culture.
    Still learning.

  4. Andrea Ihara says:

    GREAT writings Richard.

    I believe most of us have experienced these “reasons for failure” first hand. There is an old saying…. “if it ain’t broke – BREAK IT!”…..

    So many bosses, companies, and cultures are terrified of change. Mediocrity creeps into sameness. And then mediocrity slowly creeps into failure. And then it happens…a new kid on the block comes in and makes waves. And no one can understand why this young upstart was able to enter the marketplace and take over market-share. Typically, it is with ways of doing things that had never been considered before, or at least not recently… Like caring… and accountability… and education…AND commitment.


  5. Adrian says:

    Very nice sollution Sir…. Customers ? very, very important, a part of education, must study/ understand their different cultures so we can adjust/ adapt easily what their needs are and Serve them with Tender Loving Care with a Smile.

    Good day!

  6. Naresh Vassudhev says:

    Training is the key. This is where there is a slack in most companies. Training is looked at as a cost and not as an investment. Training Managers need to present Training Budgets with a Cost-Benefit perspective.

    Change is constant and “change” is resisted at all levels. It is a challenge.

    In my opinion, the above are the two main reasons for Success and Failure.

    As always, great article.

    Naresh Vassudhev

  7. Richard says:

    Hi Yvonne,
    You are correct that some marketing departments have yet to understand their new and expanded responsibilities. The same is true for sales people,
    With the complexity of many of today’s products and services and even terms and conditions educating the customer has become an important role for front line personnel.

    My Thinking Outloud,
    You make a nice point about the family “ownership” of the customer experience. It is a matter of pride. Smart leaders in non-family organizations understand this and try to create a family-like culture.

    Hi Bernie,
    It is a huge effort to become customer centered. That is why it is so important to have at least one significant champion in the C suite.

    Hi Andrea,
    Your description of creeping complacency is most apt. My guess is that most of the readers of this blog can relate to your description…particularly the part of the upstart who is initially shunned for unorthodox practices which in the long run become industry standards.

    Hi Adrian,
    You’ve got it Adrian! Particularly about the culture part. If a company is truly customer-centered, the cultural differences become less challenging because it has developed and refined systems for listening to its customers and adopting the “one size fits one” mentality.

    Hi Naresh,
    Thank you for your comments. You are right about the linkage between change and training. Usually change means moving into unfamiliar territory. When that happens we often do not have the knowledge or skills to navigate the new territory. Big point about training as an investment versus a cost. In impact studies I have seen over the years, training is always one of the highest returning investments management can make.

  8. Moazzam says:

    Customer services are not only mean is making money and sell our products to the customer. Very less People of this phase are aware that service meaning is believe trust and honesty.We should have long term relationship with our customers that they can come to us again and again istead of having just one time. Moreover money is not a matter for the customer what they required is personallism and identification. More importantly service should be consistent and reliably. Only 1 person shows the entire orgnaization behaviour through his behaviour and service.Team members must be aware and strongly consider this element of the true service seriously. so they can have the better growth in the market of competition.

    Kind Regards,


  9. wong lai chun says:

    I absolutely agree with Richard on the need for proper training once the announcement of the ‘new game’ is made. Management ‘hyped’ up all the enthusiasm on the ‘What’s and ‘Why’s of a customer centricity initiative. But if the ‘How’s’ are left out, team members can be left ‘high’ and ‘dry’ – “so how do we do it now?”. If there are no clear details of ‘how’ (including resources and skills needed) to implement action plans, the ‘fire’ fizzles out real fast.

  10. Bhuvaneshbabu says:

    That was really a great discussion about “customer centricity” and being an Indian I was able to understand the in-depths of the Cons and Pros of “customer centricity”

  11. ABDUL ASIS says:

    Really valuable advise.

  12. shera hassen says:

    Today organizations spend lots of money to attract new customers. Many fail to respond to the existing customers as they are too busy planning for new attractions. . Firms must remember the importance of retaining the existing customer by delighting them and seek new customers to experience of our offerings which is a tool for successful business growth.

    It may cost more to the Organization to get back the existing customers from competitors than investment of attracting new customers.

    All employees of the Organization must be customer oriented. You can be attached to various SBU’s in your Organization but every single employee’s objective is set towards supporting or or satisfying customer requirement by way of production, planning, supply, marketing, sales, finance etc., which in return impacts the business growth. Also each of us must get into the customer’s position and think, how do we like to be served as a customers seeking a product or service from other Organizations to satisfy our needs? What are our expectations? Finally how can the service or the product that add value to me?

    My biggest achievement is when my customers introduce or refer me to their network of friends or families as a dedicated and trusted person. I have gained this reputation by providing customer services to their requirements on time and by engaging in regular communications with the customers without fail until the customer gets the solution of his/her need. The have built relationships over many years. Gaining customer’s trust is my passion and has taken me to greater heights.

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