19 Oct 2020 21:06 IST

Good leaders need to be devoted to their customers

Without devotion and curiosity towards the buyer, intimacy and customer-centricity may just be a slogan

The first two articles in the tri-series explored three of the four characteristics of good and effective corporate leaders: WisDom, Dispassion and Discipline. This is the third and final article which outlines the fourth characteristic, i.e. Devotion towards customers, by using an example from the consumer products industry, completing the 4Ds that good leaders consistently hone and practice.

There may be a question as to why this customer piece was not the first piece in the trilogy – after all “customer comes first.” The reason for keeping it to the end is to highlight an important aspect that an aspiring leader first needs to be emotionally (Dispassion and Discipline) and intellectually (wisDom) well-qualified before trying to Devotedly understand the customer. Without the help of the other 3Ds if one were to passionately get intimate with the customers, there is a high chance that the leader may lose objectivity in striking a balance between following the customer and shaping the organisation that serves them.




AG Lafley, former Chairman and CEO of P&G, in his book titled The Game-Changer famously declares that his guiding mantra has been: “Customer is the Boss.” Under Lafley’s leadership P&G’s turnover nearly doubled to $77 billion between 2000 and 2008 with about 23 core brands individually exceeding $1 billion in annual sales.

Lafley attributed this success to building a culture of customer-centricity in his organisation across all levels of hierarchy. He mandated that all new products be developed by involving the customer right from the beginning — starting from idea generation. An outside-in, insight-driven product development approach was institutionalised.

Why must leaders take interest in first-hand customer interactions?

It is said that “culture is the shadow of the leader” and culture means “a shared way of doing something repeatedly with passion.” There is also no doubt that the most important stakeholder in any business that exists is the customer.

If one were to put all these “universal truths” together, one can see why a leader needs to roll-up the sleeves and, at least, symbolically interact, first-hand, with customers:

1. To effectively and powerfully drive a cultural change in the organisation with conviction. It is again going back to the age-old adage of “leading by example.”

2. To drive significant improvements in the areas of business processes (in addition to enhancing customer experience), people development and organisation-related areas, technology and developing differentiating strategies. A successful organisation needs to excel in all these dimensions simultaneously to remain competitive in the VUCA world.

3. A leader, who has to take very tough calls on strategy, process, people and technology, more during these times than ever before, will get great comfort from the conviction he carries because of first-hand customer understanding.

First, a good leader works towards getting a firm hold on his/her understanding of the customer base. Thereafter, the leader must be “wise” and “dispassionate” to flex all other aspects of the business: process, people, technology, strategy to ensure the grip on the customers keeps improving.

Aspiring leaders will look at the current business environment as an opportunity to instil, in a great hurry, this elixir called “customer-centricity” in every nook and corner of their organisations.

How to get intimate with customers?

Lafley terms such customer intimacy programmes as immersions. Company executives frequent customer homes to not only observe product usage but more importantly to infer customer pain-points. They watch on-line customer behaviour, the employees also work in stores to see how customers choose brands and so on. Lafley also personally used to monitor customer complaints.




AG Lafley, former Chairman and CEO, P&G   -  Reuters



Lafley outlines a personal experience wherein he observed a lady trying to open a detergent box with the help of a screw-driver which later on led to re-designing the box to make it easy to open while keeping the contents safe.

Such personal anecdotes become legends inside organisations and such communication spreads cultural messages like fire, driving rapid change in the way people work, processes work and technologies work resulting in delivering outstanding business results rapidly — catching the rivals completely off-guard.

P&G also launched a very successful single-rinse fabric softener in Mexico designed based on the insights around water availability and the need for the women to carry buckets of water from a distant community tap to their homes.

Dispassion, discpline, devotion

First, leaders become the undisputed “boss” when they “wisely” understand the ultimate boss — the customer. Good leaders identify themselves as the customers of their own organisations first and then with their company.

Second, they “dispassionately” drive periodical organisational changes in strategy, processes, people and technology as appropriate to keep the organisation healthy in the business ecosystem. After all, without a healthy company, good leaders will not be good enough, and more importantly, they will not be able to do what they like doing best, i.e. serving and delighting customers — always!

Third, good leaders have great discipline in the way they go about gathering, analysing and interpreting actionable insights as well as conducting themselves both in speech and action for getting the job done

Without the ingredients of wisdom, dispassion, discipline, and a great deal of devotion and curiosity to understand the customer, customer intimacy and customer-centricity may just be a slogan or a lip-service in an organisation.

(The writer is Managing Partner of CorEssentials).