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You Don’t Own the Customer; She or He Owns You

By Augie Ray | August 05, 2016 | 4 Comments

You don't own the customer.

“Who owns the customer?”

This is a question I have heard from a wide variety of organizations. Insurance firms wonder if the agent or the company “owns” the customer. B2B firms struggle with sales and account teams that seek to “protect” their clients. CPG brands wish to have more direct customer relations while retailers work to control the customer relationship.  And companies with many competing or complementary products and services strive to balance the contradictory needs of different brands and departments.

Author Ursula K. Le Guin once said, “There are no right answers to wrong questions.” “Who owns the customer?” is the wrong question. The terrible connotation of asking who owns a human being should be the first hint we’re on thin ice. Moreover, it should be easily apparent to everyone that brands don’t own or control anything; it is the customer who chooses us, pays for us, and abandons us if we fail to provide the right value or experience vis-a-vis the competition. If you consider this question from the perspective of the customer and not the organization, there is no question that you don’t own the customer; he or she owns you.

Thus, the right question is not “Who owns the customer?” but “How best can we serve the customer?” This servitude approach is not simply philosophical but can have a profound effect on the actions of your firm and your employees. To see how important it is to ask the right question, consider all the ways the two opposing queries either help or impair a customer-centric frame of mind:

Ownership focuses on what the parties within the organization want. It is company-centric and inside-out.
Servitude concentrates on the needs and expectations of the customer. It is customer-centric and outside-in.

Ownership assumes satisfaction, advocacy and loyalty are created.
Servitude knows they are earned.

Ownership is fixated on establishing control and entitlement.
Servitude seeks to understand responsibilities and obligations.

Ownership implies a single party can be effective at providing what customers need.
Servitude demands everyone accept responsibility.

Ownership pretends the customer needs are stable throughout their journey with your brand.
Servitude understands customers’ needs are different in different stages of the journey, necessitating a collaborative team approach.

And the most important difference is in actionability:
Ownership changes nothing–it assigns power to a part of the organization and moves on.
Servitude compels action, since the job of serving the customer, particularly in our era of constant changes in preferences, behaviors and tech adoption, is never complete.

The power of starting with the correct rather than the wrong question is that it immediately changes and improves your approach. Instead of internal turf wars, the organization must understand who the customer is, what he or she wants and how systems, processes and people must work together to support the customer’s entire journey.  Beginning with the proper question also changes the goals–the goal of the wrong question is to gain consensus (or, more likely, have a leader adjudicate a decision), while the goal of the right question is to improve customer satisfaction, loyalty and brand advocacy.

No one owns the customer. Everyone serves the customer. A company’s ability to instill this mindset across the organization and with partners is a significant step toward building a customer-centric culture that elevates business results via improved customer experience.

My peer, Noah Elkin, will explore the strategic steps brands can take to overcome the challenges of control and collaboration with distributed marketing in complex organizations in an upcoming report. I’ll be watching for it, and I hope you will, too.

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4 Comments

  • I couldn’t agree more with this writing. However, just asking the right question does not guarantee that you will better serve the customer. What is needed to effect this change is penetrating a mindset that has been in place for a long time. Operational processes and workflows were built on that mindset, and so was the way customers are served.

    Until an organization can look objectively at the “in place” processes and workflows with fresh eyes, recognize that they are propagating the wrong customer approach, and modify them, as needed, the wrong question will continue to be answered, and enhancing service to the customer will fail at the source.

    • Augie Ray says:

      Thanks, Diane. Of course, I agree. (I wouldn’t have much of a job as a customer experience analyst if the solution was one question!) Where we agree is that you can’t get the rest right if you don’t start in the right place with the right goals and the right question.

  • Jeremy says:

    Excellent article.

    I will steal that quote with pride.. “There are no right answers to wrong questions…”