Earlier this month, Managing Director Rob Smith chaired a panel at IMRG's Connect conference - IMRG (Interactive Media in Retail Group) is the UK's Online Retail Association and in this article, Rob shares his thoughts and learnings from the event.

Over to Rob 

Recently, I attended IMRG's Connect conference in London; a great gathering of people attending from both sides of the aisle - brands and suppliers. I was only able to attend the first half of the day due to a speaking engagement, which was a shame, but there was a  clear message shining through all the talks, panels and speeches of the day that I saw.

Customer centricity

I don't think that I'm alone in thinking that this is an odd message. Haven't we always been customer centric? Is there anything new about this message or is it just a maxim? This message is popular at the moment, and crops up in a great number of places. 

This got me thinking. Why do so many people seem to be trumpeting this message? How much of it is hyperbole and how much of the message contains genuine value?

I started to explore the world of customer centric companies. What are they doing so differently? Is it a behavioural change? Is it a process change? Has the market changed? In truth, for the best companies, it's all three.

Take Sweaty Betty by way of example. They offer free in-store classes, guest instructors and a strong community of blogs. They produce a stack of video content too. All this can be seen as customer centric, and helps their brand. It isn't rocket science though, nor does it need a lot of strategy to execute. Is this what we mean when we say customer centric? Does it go far enough?

ModCloth's Be the Buyer programme is quite another kettle of fish. You can help them pick which product they go on to buy, heavily influencing the ranges and collections that are then produced. This is more strategic and needs investment of resources to run and make successful. Threadless takes this model even further and has been doing so for years. There's no argument that this takes customer centricity to a new level - influencing product range is at the core of many retailers' raison d'être and as a result, is a brave area to relinquish any control.

What if we dive in the other direction? Are there any companies out there showing the opposite behaviour? Making things worse for the customer or not making decisions based on them? You may think there are plenty of them, but I'm not so sure. I believe there are many companies that are slow to react or stuck in their ways. I'm not sure there are many that don't talk about the customer a lot in day to day activity. 

There's many roadblocks to bringing your proposition up to scratch. Customers are more demanding than ever before. Channel differences are no longer tolerated. This is all good, and should be expected. The reason new companies often leapfrog existing players is their lack of baggage and thinking. They make the right decision AND can execute it quickly. You'd be hard pushed to find a Multichannel Director or similar who doesn't know what needs to happen. It's the execution that's lacking due to the number of roadblocks.

Let's take a sector notorious for its lack of customer focus. Banking. Annoying processes, lack of alignment to customer needs, poor opening hours. So why did HSBC start First Direct? To have a fresh start and not carry the baggage with them. It worked. Why is Umpqua Bank making so much progress in the US? Similar reasons. Yet there are also established players that are changing. I hear good things about Barclay's Premier for example. Their apps are pretty good too. Some grocery chains are also reacting quickly on things like home delivery. Others are not. 

Leadership is the common theme that runs through all these examples. A lack of conviction, strong strategy and risk adversity leads companies into decline. Entrepreneurs and business builders take the opposite approach and bring about significant change. At the root of any business making significant change will be a significant leader. It may not be at the pinnacle of the organisation, but it won't be far off. Without this strength of leadership, the company will remain on a steady course and will decline. 

At IMRG, Walgreen's ex CEO was quoted as saying his only job was roadblock removal for (digital) progress. Hard to put it better myself.

So customer centricity is real. I believe it's far more widespread than we all believe. Our everyday lives lead us to believe there are many companies doing things poorly. They are. Remember though that many of these companies have plenty of customer centric heads inside. They're just not being led well from the top, with bravery.