Customer-Centric Service isn't a Growth Hack

It was a rainy Sunday. My wife and I had spent the morning lazing in bed reading as the rain bucketed down outside. After a few hours of pleading puppy dog eyes, we eventually gave in to the demands of our 3-year-old cocker spaniel and took him to the local river. Our intention, to purge some of his endless energy reserves.

I swear, all this worry about climate change and struggles with renewable energy are for naught. All we need to do is find a way to harness spaniel energy and we’ll have power for eternity! 🐶

But I digress.

My point is to set the scene of a comfortably lazy, but not altogether sloth-like Sunday afternoon sat binging on Netflix. The last thing I was thinking about was HelpDocs customers…no offense!

And yet, here I was, getting to the end of an episode of The Good Place experiencing a mind-altering epiphany about customer-centricity. Boy, do I need to get out more!

The Good Place is a sitcom about someone who died and was incorrectly sent to “The Good Place” in a case of mistaken identity. It’s a hilarious show and does a lot to question what it really means to be good.

Season 1 spoiler alert: If you want to watch it and haven’t, or are currently mid-season, I basically give away the ending of season 1 in the next few paragraphs…you’ve been warned! 🚨

Having been sent to the wrong place the lead character, Eleanor—narcissist, borderline sociopath and an all-around bad egg 🥚— enlists the help of Chidi—an ethics professor and ostensibly good person 😇—to teach her how to be a better person and earn her ill-gotten spot.

After many shenanigans and close-calls, the finale has a glorious twist. It transpires what we thought was The Good Place is really The Bad Place. The four residents carrying the main storyline are in fact the only humans—everyone else is a demon with the sole purpose of torturing the residents—and they are trapped in Head Demon Architect Michael’s experimental version of infinite torture.

Basically, they’ve been put there to torture each other for eternity—and no, this isn’t a slight at my teammates 😉

During this wondrous exposition, Tahani—one of the four lead resident characters—questions her spot in the bad place. Throughout her life, Tahani had raised billions for charities and dedicated her life to philanthropy—a point raised time and time again. But, as Michael—remember, demon architect—explains, her motivation was corrupt.

On the surface, Tahani had set out to improve other people’s lives, but she only did it to curry favor with her parents and get one up on her infinitely more successful sister—and to become famous, and Taylor Swift’s bestie!

This struck a chord with me and I found myself mid-Netflix binge having an epiphany about how we approach customer happiness—because apparently, I’m that kind of person now.

We’ll call it the Tahani principle—because it sounds clever if we give it a proper sounding name. Basically, it's using a noble agenda as a mask for something untoward. There’s probably a name for it already, but I can’t think of it right now. I’m sure someone will tell me anyway!

I realized the Tahani principle was how many of us talk about and approach customer happiness, as a kind of cover story for increasing profits and growth. This feels way off to me.

Saying you’re customer-centric is all well and good as long as your motivation for doing so is pure. Being customer-centric only to build your bottom line is, well, pretty shitty.

Customer Happiness is not a Growth Hack!

With the Tahani principle firmly lodged in my noggin, posts around customer-centricity have made for hard reading. I can’t help feeling the platitudes and rhetoric companies spout about putting the customer first are a little insincere.

After a super speedy Google search, you find heaps of listicles and guides from ‘100 mind-boggling ways to create a customer-centric strategy for your business’, to ‘The top 10 tips to a customer-centric mindset backed by science’. And they all talk about the same kind of thing.

They talk about building a culture where “the customer is at the heart of all decisions”, and “doing business with your customer in a way that provides a positive customer experience”. And it’s great. I can get behind that 100% if that’s really the case.

The trouble is, all too often these hackneyed declarations are laced with conflicting goals of growth, driving repeat business and building the bottom line.

I’ll hold my hands up and say I’m not innocent in this. Not by a long shot. I’ve written posts around customer-centricity. I’ve added to the banality while patting myself on the back thinking I’m spreading an ethically sound view.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I even wrote a post in the past 6 months that praises customer-centricity as a great way to keep customers. Jeez, what a hypocrite! 😬

But since my epiphany, I’ve come to realize a lot of this regurgitated copy is a little misguided. Because if your reason for being customer-centric is to retain customers and boost your bottom line, you’re doing it wrong.

Of course, I get it. I understand why retention is used as the default metric for customer happiness. It’s logical, and it tells at least part of the story.

Let’s face it, in order to survive, businesses need to make money. And in order to make money, businesses need customers. As a SaaS business/company/whatever that relies on a consistent user base, retention is crucial.

But as a metric, retention barges the notion of customer-centricity you’ve been relying on out the window. If you set out to retain a customer at all costs, you’ve already decided your service is what’s best for them, not their happiness.

Sure, you might throw discounts at them to mitigate whatever negativity they might be feeling. You might even make promises to build integrations with platforms they want to be integrated with—even though these integrations aren’t in your roadmap and probably shouldn’t be.

You might feel like all this outweighs the fact that they said they weren’t happy. But the fact remains, their happiness has taken a back seat to your bottom line. And, realistically, you’re only delaying the inevitable. Eventually, you’ll be in the same position renegotiating ways to mitigate their happiness.

God, how awful does that sound now you say it! Who wants to mitigate happiness? What a monster! 👺

As I said, I get it. Because the alternative to negotiating with a customer is making the hard decision of breaking up with them. And this sucks too. It’s something we came to terms with recently when we had to break up with one of our customers. It wasn’t the first time, and I doubt it’ll be the last.

I'm not saying our approach to customer-centricity is better than others. Because underneath it all we’re all still scrambling to find our way just the same. But I can at least stomach reconciling our goals and metrics, without feeling like our approach to customer-centricity is motivated by anything other than happiness.

Because that’s what it’s all about. Not revenue and growth. Not retaining customers and reducing churn. Customer centricity is, by definition, about keeping the customer happy.

If this is truly your guiding light, sometimes you have to make that hard decision. The truth is, sometimes customers aren’t happy with your service, and they won’t be. Sometimes a customer will be far more fulfilled using another platform entirely.

That’s life.

To paraphrase a much smarter person than me, “you can’t please all of the people all of the time”. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t try.