How to Create a Culture of Customer Obsession & Unlock Massive Growth

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At SnackNation, our theme for 2019 is Customer Obsession.

We have ambitious growth goals this year, and an even more ambitious mission: to inspire people everywhere to make more conscious food decisions.  

The key to fulfilling both is Customer Obsession.

Customer Obsession is probably most associated with Amazon. It is the first of their 14 Leadership Principles, and the company famously leaves one open chair in every strategic meeting to represent the customer – a reminder that the customer should always have a seat at the table.

Like many of the most powerful principles in business (and life), the concept of Customer Obsession is deceptively simple. Being customer obsessed simply means prioritizing the customer’s needs and aspirations ahead of everything else – including profits (especially in the short-term) in some cases.

But putting it into practice is harder than it seems, and most companies who think they are customer obsessed are actually focused primarily on themselves – their current capabilities, their product, or their processes.

So what does it take to be customer obsessed? How do you apply this principle to your business day-in and day-out to drive results?

This is a question that the SnackNation leadership team and I have been tackling for years. This is some of what I’ve learned about what it really means to be customer obsessed, and how this mindset can really drive growth and innovation at your company.

Step 1 – Define Your Primary Customer

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Before you can obsessively serve your customer, you must first define who your primary customer is.

It can be tempting to think that you have multiple customers, but I’d argue that you have one primary customer, and if you serve that customer exceptionally, the rest will fall into place.

Here’s what I mean. Take a two-sided marketplace like SnackNation. Is our primary customer our members (the in-office and at-home consumers who receive our boxes) or our brands (the snack brands whose products end up in our boxes)?

While serving both sides of our marketplace equally well is crucial to our success, our primary customer is undoubtedly the members who receive our boxes. Without them and the network they provide, we cannot provide value to our brand partners. And thus, our members are #1. Delivering extraordinary experiences to our primary customers creates a platform so valuable that brands can’t help but want in. Again, focus on the primary customer, and the rest falls into place.

There’s also a tendency to confuse your true customer with your “target” customer. This is especially salient for brands who were founded to solve a founder’s own needs – for example, a high protein snack bar developed by male crossfit athletes to fuel their workouts and keep them in ketosis. They might assume their consumer looks a lot like themselves, when in reality their true customer is a working Millennial mom looking for something healthier to fuel her through her hectic day.

Consumers ultimately buy products that not only meet their needs, but fulfill their aspirations. That Millennial mom may or may not be a crossfit athlete, but she certainly aspires to eat like one.

My good friend and marketing expert Erik Huberman from Hawke Media recently summed it up for me when he said, “The customer picks you.” Most brands don’t spend enough time or money figuring out who is picking them and why.

Step 2 – Listen Deeply

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Once you know who your customer is, Customer Obsession requires you to listen deeply to them. Again, this means going beyond surface level wants, and focusing on needs and aspirations.

Your job is to dig deep to uncover your customers’ fundamental needs and imagine a solution that they themselves probably have not yet envisioned.

Although it might be apocryphal, this quote attributed to Henry Ford illustrates the idea well:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Deep listening also requires you to constantly put yourself in front of the customer. No matter what your role, there’s no substitute for genuine interaction.

Some of the best leaders I know make this a priority. Health Warrior CEO Shane Emmett still conducts product demos in front of real customers, just to keep a finger on the pulse. Honest Co. co-founder Christopher Gavigan does something similar. When I interviewed him a few years back for the Brand Builder podcast, he told me that he takes anywhere from 30-50 customer service calls every single week.

California Closets CEO Bill Barton takes a more macro approach. Success for California Closets, as defined by Barton, is viewed through three separate but equally important lenses:

  1. OKRs: is the company hitting their business objectives and key results?
  2. Company mission: is the company transforming interior spaces and empowering people to get more out of their homes and everyday lives?
  3. Net Promoter Score: is the company delivering experiences that customers are likely to recommend to a friend or colleague?

Having NPS figure so prominently in the company’s very definition of success is unique. Leaders at the company are encouraged to evaluate decisions based on how it will impact NPS, and Barton actually looks at NPS data at the start of every day.

Step 3 – Focus on What Matters to Your Customer

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Another ethos we subscribe to at SnackNation is Essentialism – the disciplined pursuit of less. Essentialism comes from Greg McKeown’s fantastic book of the same name, and simply means maximizing your impact by focusing on your highest leverage activities.

During our annual all-hands, Jake Moser (one of our Member Success managers) – asked this fantastic question: how can we be both Customer Obsessed and Essentialists at the same time?

It’s a great question because, on the surface, Essentialism and Customer Obsession seem at odds with each other. But that’s actually one of the biggest misconceptions about Customer Obsession – that it means being everything to everyone, or delivering unscalable “wow” moments at every turn.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. Customer Obsession means being great in the things that your customer cares about most, and strategically being mediocre – or even bad – at the things that don’t move the needle (or don’t move the needle as much).

Consider again what Customer Obsession means for Amazon. Amazon chooses to obsessively deliver on what it knows its customers care about most – speed and price. Likewise, they foster a culture that values efficiency. The company is ok with underperforming on personalized customer service or discoverability, which aren’t as important to their core customer.

Customer Obsession will show up differently for every organization. How it shows up for you depends on what matters most to your customer.

Step 4 – Imbue the Customer Obsession Mindset into Your Team’s Culture

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The key to it all is to integrate the Customer Obsession mindset into your organization, so that it not only sticks with your team members, but that it ultimately drives decision making.

Myself and all the leaders at SnackNation do this by constantly driving home consistent messaging, tying this theme into everything we do. And I do mean everything – Customer Obsession is a touchstone for every Crush It Call (Friday all-hands), Rockoff (Monday all-hands), all leadership meetings, company-wide communications about big team wins, you name it. And it’s not just the concept – it’s the WHY behind the concept.

It’s to the point where people at SnackNation may roll their eyes from time to time, but recall that on average it takes eight impressions for a message to stick with a consumer. The same principle applies here. For a new idea to stick and start to be put into action, repetition is a must.

As for me, starting this year I began looking at NPS reports weekly. I love this because it helps take what might be an abstract principe and makes it real.

Why it Matters – Customer Obsession Drives Innovation

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The least recognized benefit of the Customer Obsession principle is its ability to drive innovation.

It all stems from the fact that you’re working backwards from your customer’s needs and aspirations. Because starting with your customer is liberating.

When you’re focused on yourself, your competitors, or your product, you will always be limited by your own skills and capabilities.

But when you start with your customer’s needs and aspirations and work backwards, you’re suddenly free to innovate without boundaries. Suddenly, all options are on the table – including capabilities you don’t yet possess. Customer Obsession frees you up to ideate without constraints, and to worry about the how later. Your mindset shifts from what’s possible now, to what might be possible. It pushes your thinking and your capabilities forward.

Does your team practice Customer Obsession? How does it show up at your organization? Let me know in the comments below.