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Ralph Cook

The Divine Right of Customers

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We’ve all heard the maxim, ‘the customer is king’. When I reflect on my many experiences as a customer I have rarely, if at all, felt like royalty. More commonly I’m treated as a cross between a well-meaning serf and an unwelcome interloper. No, I can honestly say that I’ve never been overwhelmed by some divine right of the customer. In truth, there’s a level of irony regarding the professed focus on the customer contrasted with the feeling you get when you are one – that you’re the last consideration on a long list.

The important question is, why?

There is an accepted principle that great organisations place the customer at the heart of everything they do. Even Michael O’Leary has seen the light and is now switching his Ryanair business onto the importance and power of the customer. This principle has pervaded in both public and private institutions and been reflected in the explosion of data and thinking now devoted to generating better customer insight.  In his book, ‘The Little BIG Things’, Tom Peters argued that listening to the customer and generating high levels of customer satisfaction were fundamental when striving for excellence. In short, listening to customers isn’t just about feedback on current services and products but a fundamental part of creating the next generation of them.

This is where a disconnect emerges.

Traditional geo-demography has its place in helping us better understand customers and citizens but it only gets us so far. Sure, it can help to tell us who but it only occasionally tells us how and almost never explains why. In general, public service institutions are still too heavily reliant on this geo-demographic data to help inform innovation, in its worst guise it’s often just a means to reinforce existing practise and boost morale. In contrast some private sector organisations have stepped beyond this and have invested heavily in a greater understanding of behaviours, values and motivations. As public services attempt to move away from transacting services to affecting outcomes, a similar shift in customer insight and understanding is both achievable and necessary.

Granted, the markets are not the same. Often the public sector is a provider of last resort, it deals with complex needs, it has statutory obligations, etc… all completely true, all often used as a reason to not attempt a more modern blend of traditional data driven insight with behavioural analysis. Neither isolated nor combined, these aren’t adequate enough excuses to stop a public institution from engaging.

So what is this really about?

Fundamentally, this is about investing in the customer, citizen or user. By acknowledging that a more profound understanding of them will help drive innovation, make savings and improve quality, the business case becomes largely self-evidencing. This is doubly true when you consider the increasing importance that demand management assumes in senior local government executives minds.

As a recent starter to IMPOWER this short post acts as both my reflections on the biggest challenge facing the public sector and the reason why I joined. I’m not naïve enough to think that public institutions facing dramatic (and sustained) cuts can make every leap necessary right now. We can however do more to learn about how customers use services, what drives their behaviour and more importantly why. So, whether you think the ‘customer is king’ is largely irrelevant, your attitude to the insights they can give you on the other hand, that is everything.

image via photopin

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