A lot has been written about having a customer-centric approach, or placing the customer at the heart of your business rather than your product. However, unless you’re a strategist or marketing evangelist it can all start sounding like the "what came first, chicken or the egg?" brain teaser. The truth is it doesn’t have to be that complicated … 

Anyone who has ever worked has heard the mantra "the customer is always right." It’s easy to mistake the idea of putting the customer on a pedestal as having a customer-centric business model but it’s only half right.

The notion of the customer always being right has its roots in customer service, which is mostly a reactive encounter -- as in how you treat your customer once they’ve already invested in your product. A customer-centric business model adds the customer to the mix long before they’re even aware that they are going to buy your product or service. It encapsulates the entirety of the customer’s experience with your brand.

Today, most peoples’ interactions with large enterprises and the financial services industry in particular, begin and end online. So, how do you create a customer-centric business model using the digital channels?

Online, Customer Engagement is Key

For enterprises that are already well established with solid consumer bases but nonetheless lagging behind online, the key is engaging with customers and creating digital experiences that build relationships and solidify loyalty. In order to do that you must become customer-centric.

Following lean methodology is the most effective way to achieve customer-centricity. As more and more people are choosing to organize many aspects of their lives through the digital channels, it’s incredibly important for organizations to be able to meet them there with the types of experiences and services they expect. Some of the biggest brands in the world, like Amazon and Zappos, exist only online -- at least as far as their customers are concerned. Traditional brick-and-mortar enterprises cannot ignore the fact that it’s highly possible to lose customers to new online-only competitors if they can’t engage with their customers digitally.

From Customer-Centric to Customer Engagement & Empowerment

Simply creating a customer-centric online experience doesn’t necessarily tick all the boxes. Consumers also expect each of their online interactions to feel a little like coming home. They don’t want to be treated exactly the same as everyone else. A good, online environment that meets customer needs and expectations is the apple pie of platforms. One that knows their name, their likes and dislikes, and not only remembers the last thing they looked at but can recommend something even better without being asked -- that’s the triple-decker fudge cake of personal online experiences.

Empowering customers to personalize their online profiles to suit their individual tastes makes two very important things happen. Firstly, they are handing over bucket loads of information that you can use to create personal and relevant messages that will promote your products to the right audiences. And secondly, they are engaging with your brand and investing time in building the relationship. The more anyone invests a relationship, the stronger that relationship becomes. So, by empowering your customers, you’re really investing in the relationship and creating stronger brand loyalty.

Amazon is a great example of this. One of the many reasons why Amazon has been so successful is because of its ability to target customers with offers that really are relevant to them. And, the more you use Amazon, the better the retailer seems to know what you want. It’s rather like heading to the same breakfast joint every day, it doesn’t take long before you feel welcomed and appreciated.

Combine this ability to create relative and personal campaigns with excellent customer service and a pretty impressive overall user experience and you’ve got yourself a recipe for success. However, Amazon is an online animal that has been honing its ability to hunt out new ways to engage customers for years so it’s no wonder it is so good at it. However, the beauty of having an innovator like Amazon set the bar so high is that we can all learn from them.

Financial institutions provide another example of an industry starting to realize the necessity of online engagement is to customer retention. They are seeing greater and greater levels of interaction coming through their digital channels in comparison to traditional branches.

Think about it, how many times to you head to your local branch? Once or twice a year maybe? And how many times do you check your account online? I bet it’s a little more often than once or twice a year. Although banks are hampered by aging and complex IT systems, there is a shift towards what is being called Bank 2.0 and Engagement Banking:

The banking industry provides a unique insight into how rapidly an industry can be forced to change by new technologies and customer behavior. In recent years, big banks have invested massively in the digital channel. Smaller, community banks are still struggling to keep up and are now threatened by an entirely new breed of bank: the online only bank. These banks, such as Simple and Moven, are gaining traction quickly by providing intensely personal and flexible banking solutions.

The emergence and increasing popularity of this new brand of banking is solid proof that people will migrate to services that meet their needs by providing simple, personalized experiences. If customers are willing to put their financial well-being on the line by putting their finances online, it’s a no-brainer that the same thing will happen in other industries.

It’s much easier to see the impact of evolving web technologies on industry specific markets like banks and credit unions but it doesn’t matter what you sell, or what service you provide; customers today expect a personal and relevant experience online.

The Customer is Dead, Long Live the Customer

In a way, the truly customer-centric approach has killed off the old idea of the customer. Customer-centricity demands creating the perfect product for your customer, not waiting (hoping) for the perfect customer for your product to magically appear.

In other words, your customer must also be your collaborator … and yes, they will still always be right. This approach to business has its roots in what has become to be known as the "lean methodology." Since then the lean methodology has been adopted by anyone wanting to implement a more customer-centric approach and adapted to software development, project management and business planning. Eric Reis’ Lean Startup is the latest addition to the lean movement and it’s a great, comprehensive guide to configuring a business to be lean and customer-centric from the outset.

The Lean Portal - Making Customer-Centricity Easy

Creating an engaging, customer-centric online experience with a lean portal is easy because the portal itself has been built according to customer-centric lean principles. It’s easy to integrate for the IT customer, easy to operate for the business customer and easy to engage with for the end-customer.

When integrating a lean portal, nothing in an organization’s back-end systems has to change, which makes it far simpler for IT teams to come to grips with. The lean portal is loosely coupled with existing systems and aggregates content and functionality from them to create a personal and relevant customer experience layer for both the business owner and the end-customer.

The lean portal creates an agile, flexible customer experience layer:

The lean portal also helps an organization to become more customer-centric throughout its deployment. Lean portals have a very fast time-to-market because of their relatively simple integration process. They deliver almost all the essential functionality within a matter of months and new functionalities can be added as needed.

This more modular approach to implementation allows businesses to involve their customers in the development process by releasing new functions through a series of iterations that incorporate testing, analytics and customer feedback. By creating an online experience with a lean portal, business owners can set up A/B tests that allow customers to show them what they want through their interactions, rather than relying only on qualitative feedback or internal preferences, which can waste huge amounts of time and resources. In this way, a lean portal doesn’t just help an organization become more customer-centric online, it also makes great business sense.

The agile and modular nature of lean portals, which use customizable widgets to provide functionality, is incredibly well suited to delivering this level of personalization. Achieving a truly outside-in, customer-centric online customer experience with a lean portal is easy. Not only does the portal help you create an agile and engaging online experience for end-customers, it enables business owners to implement the kind of lean thinking that leads to a truly customer-centric organization from the ground up.

Title image courtesy of Tsekhmister (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more of Jouk's take on lean portals, see his Born Lean: Why Lean Portals Work