How customer-obsessed companies are coming out on top: Insights from CX executive Marbue Brown
You might say your business prioritizes the needs of your customers. You might even say your customer-service is customer-centric. But do you have what it takes to earn the title of customer-obsessed?
The terms customer-obsessed, customer-centric, and customer-focused sound pretty similar. In fact, they are often used interchangeably, describing companies that develop a culture that continuously puts the customer at the heart of the business. But according to Marbue Brown, founder of the consulting firm The Customer Obsession Advantage and long-time CX executive who has worked in companies such as JP Morgan Chase, Amazon, and Microsoft, they are very much not the same. In his recent book, Blueprint for Customer Obsession, Marbue describes what he calls the customer obsession continuum, which places companies on a scale from customer indifferent to customer-focused, customer-centric, and customer-obsessed. However, Marbue notes, companies rarely achieve the final level.
What does ‘customer obsessed’ mean?
Customer-obsessed describes an extreme approach to customer service, an obsessive attention to the customers’ needs. Companies with this mindset make continuous investments in the customers’ favor, even when they can’t immediately tie it to a financial benefit and even when these policies look extreme or even foolish to the outside eye. And why do they do it? Because they know that in the long run, what’s good for the customer will ultimately be good for the business. And according to market research company Forrester, it really pays off: their research suggests customer obsession can yield a 700% ROI over 12 years.
In today’s episode, we caught up with Marbue Brown to talk about what distinguishes companies that are truly customer-obsessed from their customer-focused or customer-centric colleagues and how that obsession has driven the success of brands such as Amazon, Costco, Ritz, and more.
Short on time? Here are a few key takeaways:
- Customer-obsessed companies invest in the customer experience because when you provide great experiences, customers become advocates and do the marketing for you.
- If this customer-obsessed mindset is endorsed by the top leadership, it sets an example for everyone in the organization to follow.
- These companies personalize the experience by engaging personally with customers, anticipating their needs, and tailoring interactions to create a feeling of being understood.
- Businesses can leverage the latest advancements in AI to enhance their capabilities in providing better automated service to their customers.
If you enjoy the discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.
The customer obsession continuum
Liam Geraghty: Marbue, welcome to Inside Intercom. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Marbue Brown: And Liam, it’s a pleasure for me to be with you. I look forward to our discussion.
Liam: You’ve had such an interesting career to date. I’d love it if you could tell us a little bit about your journey to this point.
Marbue: Ever since I got out of graduate school, I’ve been in the customer experience space. Whether it was my primary job or it was my secondary job, I have been having some form of connection to customer experience. I developed a passion for it after being involved, like I said, right out of graduate school. I had the opportunity to work with some very special people in the field. Early on, there was a model called the SERVQUAL model. My team did a lot of innovations on that. We published it. That actually became a whole issue of a marketing research magazine. And the journey has continued from there.
“We rarely have evidence that we can put on the table when we talk about companies being customer-obsessed”
I got to work with people like Claes Fornell, who pioneered the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Parasu and Leonard Berry and Valarie Zeithaml. I started there, but that journey has continued, and I got a chance to work for companies like Microsoft and Amazon. I got a chance to really blaze some new trails, break some new ground, and deliver some key results around customer experience. And most recently, I was at JP Morgan Chase as the head of customer experience for the consumer bank, and we were able to put some stellar results on the board.
Liam: I love how you’ve taken all of these brilliant experiences and learnings and put them in a book that came out a couple of months ago, Blueprint for Customer Obsession. What inspired you to write it?
Marbue: Well, the phrase customer obsession is one of those phrases regularly used. Forbes, for example, will put out a list of the most customer-obsessed companies, but when it gets right down to it, everybody who uses the phrase customer obsession doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing. I wanted to tackle the whole notion of giving a really airtight definition of customer obsession, using real-life examples of companies that people won’t argue are customer-obsessed, and then give us a common language. We rarely have evidence that we can put on the table when we talk about companies being customer-obsessed.
“Even when people talk about customer-focused or customer-centric companies, they’re not the same as customer-obsessed companies”
Liam: As you say, those alternative phrases are customer-focused or customer-centric. How do you define customer obsession as differing from all those other ones?
Marbue: One of the things I’ve laid out in the book is the customer obsession continuum. I’ve described companies all the way from customer indifferent, customer-aware, customer-focused, customer-centric, and customer-obsessed. Even when people talk about customer-focused or customer-centric companies, they’re not the same as customer-obsessed companies.
Customer-obsessed companies are companies that take action and make investments in the customer’s favor, even when they cannot immediately connect the dots to the financial benefit for themselves. Now, the reason they do this is because they know that it always pans out in the end if you take the approach that what’s good for customers is good for the business.
A community of rabid fans
Marbue: When I was at Amazon, we had a mechanism called the “customer experience Andon Cord.” What the customer experience Andon Cord does, in its most basic sense, is give customer service associates the ability to pull products off the Amazon site if those products are causing a bad experience for customers. We had business rules that would trigger a customer service associate to do that. And to be quite frank, we modernized that to the point where we had machine learning models and advanced statistical models actually pulling those items faster than customer service associates could detect them.
It’s a pretty big deal when you give an associate the ability to pull a product off the site so it’s not being sold. And by the way, in the background, that would automatically trigger a troubleshooting cycle to determine what the problem was and whether that problem could be fixed so that the product could be relisted. That’s extreme when compared with what you would find in other places. That’s one example of the type of thing that you would have a customer-obsessed company doing.
“One of the things that customer-obsessed companies do is take dollars that they might normally put towards marketing and put it towards the customer experience”
Liam: You mentioned they are the kind of companies that are doing this, knowing that, say, the financial gain isn’t going to be there immediately. Is there a hurdle for companies who want to be more customer-obsessed to get over that? Maybe it’s a bit scary in the first place to do that when you’re not going to see these immediate results?
Marbue: Well, I’m not saying they don’t always see immediate results, but maybe they’re not able to connect the dots immediately. One of the things that customer-obsessed companies do is take dollars that they might normally put towards marketing and put it towards the customer experience. And they’re able to do that because when customers have great experiences, they tell people and post about it. Jeff Bezos had a saying way back when that it used to be that when a customer had a bad experience, they would tell six friends, but now, in the internet age, they tell 6,000 friends. Are you familiar with the pet supplies company called Chewy?
Liam: No, I’m not.
Marbue: Okay. Well, Chewy has a customer-obsessed culture, and it went from being a brand new company in six years to being the number one retailer of pet food on the internet. I’ll give you an example. A customer had a pet that passed away, so he contacted Chewy to see if he could return a bag of prescription food he wasn’t going to be able to use anymore. And they told him, “Look, you don’t have to return that.” They refunded him and said he could donate it. Some days later, he got an oil painting of his pet in the mail with a handwritten note. He was so touched by that. He thought, “Maybe if I post this, they’ll get some credit.” Between likes and reposts, more than 100,000 people saw that. If you think about what Jeff Bezos said, it’s not even 6,000 friends anymore – it’s hundreds of thousands. That’s one of the things that can help companies get over the hurdle. The bottom line is that when you do great things for your customers, they tell others. They become rabid fans.
“With these companies, customers are not casual consumers. They’re rabid fans. And when you have customers in the rabid fan zone, they do your marketing for you”
When I was living in the Seattle area, Chick-fil-A opened a restaurant in the Bellevue suburb for the first time, and it basically caused a whole traffic incident. The cars in the parking lot were coming out of the drive-through, backing up onto the road, around the corner, and into the ramp off the highway, which was not so far. They had to bring in police to basically manage the traffic flow and all that. These folks are rabid fans.
I read a write-up in one of the Seattle papers that said that maybe it should have been a clue to the city officials when they saw people camping out in the Chick-fil-A parking lot before the store even opened, right? With these companies, customers are not casual consumers. They’re rabid fans. And when you have customers in the rabid fan zone, they do your marketing for you. They do your advertising for you. That’s one of the ways it pays off when companies go to those kinds of extremes.
Liam: Are customer-obsessed companies creating that type of customer? Are they attracting them?
Marbue: I’m not sure I can fully answer that question. I mean, it’s a special kind of customer that goes to the extent of tattooing a brand on their arm or something like that. And some Costco customers have gone to that extent. Now, you know what? Those stores do special things and customers just love it. And they want to tell other people about it. There are people who have started blogs to tell others about the deals in Costco. It’s not like Costco doesn’t send out their flyers to tell people what the deals are, but these folks are so excited that they just can’t keep it to themselves. But that’s one of the things about these companies that are in that category of customer-obsessed. People are constantly out there telling their story for them. It’s organic. They do what they do, and the customers pick up the mantle and run with it.
“Other folks would look at these policies and think, ‘You guys must be insane'”
Liam: Well, that’s just it. I’m here in Dublin, Ireland, but I have friends who’ve told me about Costco across the Atlantic about their return policy. I suppose that’s how far it extends.
Marbue: I mean, Costco opened up in China, and there was a three-hour wait for people to get into the store. It inspires a certain type of loyalty. This is what you find with customer-obsessed companies. In the book, I’ve identified eight things that differentiate these companies from others. Eight hallmarks. One of those hallmarks is that they have these policies that really stack the odds in the customer’s favor. Other folks would look at these policies and think, “You guys must be insane.” And those other companies, as you said, wouldn’t necessarily have the mindset to go and replicate those policies. But these companies keep doing this and with great effect.
Going above and beyond
Liam: I’d love to hear about your experiences at Amazon and elsewhere. How do you create a customer-obsessed culture within the company?
Marbue: Let me tell you. In the companies I’ve been at – Amazon, JP Morgan Chase – that mindset comes from the top. Let me give you an example of another thing that Amazon would do. Jeff Bezos used to have something called the question mark email. Jeff was always encouraging customers to email him, and when they did, he would take an email, put a question mark on it, and send it to one of his direct reports. That email would filter its way down through the organization and could land on your desk. And if it landed on your desk, the most senior person had the responsibility to pull together that response. And you pulled together that response knowing there definitely had to be follow-through. You had to have done the troubleshooting to know the root cause, and you weren’t just fixing it for that one customer – you were basically fixing it so that other customers would not have a similar problem.
“When it comes from the top, everybody else in the chain knows that this is what it takes to be customer-obsessed, and they’re going to go out and do it”
One time, somebody asked Jeff, “How do you feel about it when you send one of these emails, and it randomizes a whole group for a week?” He said, “You know what? Then it must be a very important and difficult problem we had to solve.” That person was almost saying it was interrupting the business. And his point was that, no, it wasn’t interrupting the business. It was solving serious problems for customers. We don’t want those problems to be repetitive. We want to make them go away at the source. That’s the kind of thing that comes from the top. When it comes from the top, everybody else in the chain knows that this is what it takes to be customer-obsessed, and they’re going to go out and do it.
Liam: Love that. What is personalized customer service to you? How do you define it?
Marbue: I’m going to go to one of the hallmarks of customer obsession. Customer-obsessed companies engage personally. These companies get their customers. When their customers engage with them, they personalize the experiences so that it doesn’t seem like you’re a stranger. You feel like, “Oh, these folks get me.” For example, if you have a reason to contact Amazon customer service, if you do it by chat, all of a sudden, you’re going to see something about the last thing you ordered because they figured you might be contacting them about it, and it’ll give you options if you’ve ordered several things.
That doesn’t come across like a generic experience – it comes across like one that’s tailored to you. And if it’s something that, when you go in the chat, it’s not able to engage with you and solve it, it’ll automatically switch you over to a live agent. These are the kinds of things that these companies do to personalize the experience.
“That’s what personalizing the experience means. It means giving the customer what they want before they even know they need it”
Let me go to another company. Take Ritz Carlton. They have a system they practice with their ladies and gentlemen, their associates. And what they do is practice with those folks to identify unexpressed needs. Imagine if you have a family that comes in and the wife is expecting. Normally, they might have set up your room with champagne and something like that, but by the time you get up there, they switched it to apple juice or sparkling cider or something like that. They’re keying in on these needs that you haven’t necessarily expressed.
Once, a customer who went to a Ritz went paddleboarding. His shades dropped off in the water, and he thought, “Okay, forget that. I’m never going to see those again.” On the next day, somebody brought him his shades. Somebody dived and recovered those shades for him and brought them to him. That’s obsession. That’s not the normal thing you would get. And that’s what personalizing the experience means. It means giving the customer what they want before they even know they need it. Because you’re attuned. You are paying attention to what those customers’ needs are.
The rise of AI
Liam: I loved when you were talking about the Amazon example in terms of returning back and seeing some of the products that maybe you bought recently, and being able to switch you over to a human support person. I suppose it’s the marriage of human support and automation. With the recent release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT-4, and even our own GPT-4-powered chatbot, Fin, I’d love to ask you what you think the future has in store for customer service with AI?
“If I have an AI assistant to help me navigate those apps, that mental model thing goes out the window”
Marbue: There have been places where automation has been lacking. And I think that with AI, we’re going to be able to take that to a whole other level. And humor me for a bit. I’ll share something with you. If you’re a Windows user, there is a mental model that goes with using Windows. You know where things are, you know how to find things if they’re not appearing. That’s partially because you have a mental model for how that works. If you’re a Mac user, that mental model is different.
Now, let’s think about apps on your phone, for example. If you use a banking app or multiple apps, their organization is different. And where you look for things or find things or even what’s in the app – you don’t necessarily have a mental model for how to do that. If your mental model is different than the designer’s mental model, you might have trouble finding stuff. Now, if I have an AI assistant to help me navigate those apps, that mental model thing goes out the window because that automated assistant is smart enough to figure out if the thing you are looking for is even there, and it can go find it and bring it to you. That will change the dynamics of how customer service is delivered in a lot of different ways.
I don’t know how directly you experienced this, but during COVID, at the beginning of the week on Monday, call centers were fully operational everywhere, and by Thursday, those call centers were being shut down. Now, some people were in a great position where they were using call center software, and their customer service associates could essentially pick up a laptop, take it home, plug it in, fire the whole thing up, and keep working. But there were a lot who weren’t. Now, imagine if you had your digital assistance with AI capabilities to help service customers under those conditions. That would make a huge difference.
“I’m looking to take companies and create a ranking based on these hallmarks of customer obsession to be able to give companies a good assessment of where they fit in the customer obsession spectrum”
Liam: Exactly. Hit nail on the head. What’s next for you? Do you have any big plans or projects for 2023?
Marbue: I’ve got a few things I’m working on to bring together. One of them is called the Customer Obsession Barometer. I’m looking to take companies and create a ranking based on these hallmarks of customer obsession to be able to give companies a good assessment of where they fit in the customer obsession spectrum. That’s one thing. I’m also looking to launch some CXO circles that I would moderate, where we would have folks coming together around some hot customer experience topics and sharing with one another. Those are some of the things I have on the horizon.
Liam: That sounds great. Where can people go to keep up with you and your work?
Marbue: I would give people two places to go. One of them is my website, which is customerobsession.net, and folks can connect with me on LinkedIn. Follow me on LinkedIn, that’ll be a great way to connect as well.
Liam: Perfect. I’ll put all of those in the description and the show notes. Marbue, thank you so much for joining me today.
Marbue: Absolutely. It’s been a pleasure spending time with you, and I really hope that folks who listen in get some nuggets they can take and use right away.