What Are Visionary Customer-Centric Execs Thinking About?

Engaging with Customers to Innovate, Solve Problems, and Keep their Brands Focused on Customers' Goals

June 5, 2008

How do you transform your organization from the outside in, to be more customer-centric? This is the daily challenge faced by senior executives in a variety of industries. Twice a year, we host a meeting for some of the most visionary executives in a variety of industries. They are the heads of e-business, sales, marketing, business strategy, customer experience, and product management. These are the people who are leading the customer charge in their industries—financial services, high tech, manufacturing, retail, publishing, pharmaceutical, telecoms, health and fitness, education, and not-for-profits. In the spring of 2008, they discussed over a dozen topics—many of them centered around their use of the Web to engage customers in helping them transform their organizations to be customer-outcome focused.


Patty’s Visionaries met in the spring of 2008 to swap stories and compare notes. Here’s a summary of some of the key questions they raised and answered:

1. How do you help customers reach their desired outcomes even when they don’t want to take the actions necessary to reach their goals? Design solutions that will give them a default path of least resistance they can happily follow.

2. How do you foster a culture of customer-led innovation? Celebrate customers’ ideas and contributions.

3. What’s the best way to provide an integrated view of customer account-specific information for internal employees and customers? Use enterprise search as your middleware.

4. What’s a great use of aggregated customer information? Mine the data to provide valuable insights to customers about their own and their peers’ behavior.

5. How do you make it easy for employees to contribute actionable and well-branded content? Have customers and sales-people rate and review their contributions. Invest in people to tag content and to add parameters that matter most to customers.

6. How can you take advantage of customers’ social networking behaviors? Build social networking into your Web properties; but don’t expect customers to come to your site; make it easy for them to interact with one another around your brand using the tools and services they prefer.

What Do Visionary Customer-Centric Execs Discuss?

What Do Visionary Customer-Centric Execs Discuss?

© 2008 Patricia Seybold Group

Illustration 1. Here's a Mind Map of some of the topics discussed at this spring's Visionaries’ Meeting. Customers’ contexts and ideal outcomes are at the core of Visionaries’ thinking. They build their brands (and their customer experience) around helping customers’ reach their outcomes and find solutions. They create organizational alignment around helping customers solve tough problems. They focus on providing customer-critical services, such as search, community, and social networking (loosely-coupled interactions). They place a high value on actionable, appropriately branded, customer-critical content.


Twice a year, we get together with our most visionary, insightful, customer-centric clients. They like to compare notes with one another about what they’ve accomplished, what they’re struggling with, and what they’ve learned. These conversations are, of course, confidential. But there are themes and patterns that we’re able to share without breaking any confidences. This spring’s meeting was held in conjunction with the FIRST Robotics championship in Atlanta, Georgia, where there were thousands of enthusiastic kids competing and collaborating. (You may also want to read about our learnings from the FIRST event). 1

Patty’s Visionaries include e-business leaders, marketing execs, business strategists, customer experience execs, and organizational change agents in a variety of industries—both B2C and B2B as well as not-for-profits. It’s a hand-picked group of people who have a proven track record for changing their businesses and their industries from the outside in.

As I reviewed the notes from our two days’ together, I noticed a number of interesting themes. Visionaries talked about how they:

  • Use “Outside Innovation” to shift their organizational cultures
  • Help customers reach their goals
  • Mine customer patterns to deliver value to customers
  • Help customers solve problems and find solutions
  • Make information as actionable as possible
  • Bring customer community to the point of need
  • Use Web gadgets and widgets to provide viral interactivity
  • Use search as the “new middleware“ to pull customer, product, and transaction information together
  • Realize that customers don’t “go” to Web sites any more; but engage in loosely-coupled free-floating interactions
  • Make it the path of least resistance for contributors to provide appropriately branded content
  • Improve the quality and relevance of the content that our distributed subject matter experts provide
  • Centralize core customer-critical services; empower bottoms up, outside in creativity
  • Re-invent our brand constantly

There’s a common thread that links all these themes together: customer-centric visionaries see the world as digital and e-enabled. They don’t make a distinction between the physical world and the online world when it comes to customer experience and to helping customers reach their goals. They recognize that online tools and information are tightly integrated into how our customers and employees interact with their world.


Most of our Visionaries take customer-led innovation seriously. They devote resources and management attention to trying out different innovation techniques. Most of these techniques involve co-design with customers, or with front-line employees role-playing customers. Sometimes they work with students and college kids. In other cases, they work with adult customers—often “lead customers”—the early adopters who push the envelope. In other cases, they visit people in their homes and offices and/or bring people in “off the street” to test out ideas and to do usability testing.

“We take a portfolio approach,” explained one Visionary. “We try different things and it’s okay if some of them don’t work out.” This firm had done over 200 “co-development projects” in the last two years; each one followed the same general pattern:

Planning --> Idea --> Conceptual Prototype --> Functional Prototype --> Internal Beta --> External Beta.

PRODUCT AND PROCESS DEVELOPMENT. Visionaries always engage with customers as they’re developing products and strategies. Sometimes, it’s an uphill battle getting their colleagues to play along. In most of their corporate cultures, it’s okay to study customers using market research techniques and to survey customers to determine where they’re dissatisfied and what needs improving. But when they want to engage directly with customers by integrating lead customers more fully into their firms’ planning activities, they often meet with organizational resistance.

Several Visionaries have managed to garner breakthrough results by working directly with a small group of lead customers. Others have used a “bottoms up,” grassroots innovation approach, noticing the situations in the field where customers and staff work well together to pilot new ideas and then celebrating those results. All agreed that they could do a better job of spreading and celebrating customer-led innovation through their organizations.

“We want to hook up a fast track channel for innovation,” one Visionary said. “We want to be ahead of the pack and to attract customers by showing them what they can do (by showing them what others have done).” From another: “If we’re not innovative, we’re going to die out very fast.”

WEB 2.0 ACTIVITIES. In the online realm, most Visionaries are empowering their customers to rate and review information on their Web sites and to add their own tags (to create their own folksonomies). Many offer widgets (interactive online tools) that customers can re-use on their own blogs, send to colleagues, or modify by mixing and matching. They celebrate and support customers’ use of YouTube to share their ads and their product demos...


1) See “ Making Team Innovation Work: Learning from FIRST How to Inspire Inventors and Build an Innovative Culture ,” by Patricia Seybold, April 30, 2008.

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