The Pathway To Customer Obsession

According to Forrester’s 2022 Customer Obsession Assessment, just 3% of companies are customer-obsessed. But that’s not because they don’t understand the concept or the value. After all, who wouldn’t believe that putting the customer at the center of your leadership, strategy, and operations is a good idea? The issue is that leaders don’t know how to operationalize customer obsession at their firms. It can be difficult to know where to start, who should do what, how long it should take, or what it might cost.

We’ve put together a few key steps to get you started.

Establish your blueprint for customer obsession.

Business model adjustments, the transformation of product and service delivery, channel partner overhauls, and a reset of day-to-day work habits can all be outcomes of customer obsession efforts. But the results that you can expect for your business depends on four things:

  1. Your purpose for customer obsession. Mercedes-Benz USA initiated customer obsession to defend its market leadership. Bank of Montreal needed to rebuild following financial crises. Step one in operationalizing customer obsession is to know, clearly, why you are pursuing it now. Steve Loyka, Delta Dental’s director of experience strategy, said that the company strives to be customer-obsessed in order to counter disruption from healthcare startups. Ambitious goals work here, as long as they are realistic. Australian financial services firm Westpac started on its path to being “one of the world’s great service companies” by first becoming a better bank.
  2. The way you express customer obsession. Forrester sees three common expressions of customer obsession: “Count on us” (reliability), “At your service” (service), and “On your side” (advocacy). Determining which one of the three most applies to your business depends on your company’s strengths and what your customers value. That’s right: You don’t have to offer Zappos-like customer service to be customer-obsessed. In fact, indiscriminately scaling customer service can cost millions and work against your brand’s purpose. Volker Probst, director of continuous improvement for Align Technologies, agrees: “Rather than trying to be the best CX [customer experience] company out there, I want to make a difference in the things that customers are passionate about.”
  3. How customer obsession drives your growth. The size and nature of your customer obsessed commitment should depend on the returns that it will drive. Caterpillar Financial modeled the effects of improved customer loyalty on revenue over five years to size its CX transformation before launch. Crowe invested in satisfying its customers after learning that they buy more and cost less. Mercedes-Benz USA invested in dealer education because a 10% improvement in dealer staff engagement lifted per-dealership sales by $376,000.
  4. How customer obsession aligns with your company goals. CX coach Jeanne Bliss finds that when companies think of customer obsession just as a “reaction to bad scores or lousy social media,” they “exhaust everyone by doing body slams to make right by the customer.” Volker Probst calls this “linking [customer obsession efforts] to daily work.” And as CX consultant Scott Doniger explains, it helps if “everyone knows where you are trying to go and why.”

It’s better to treat customer obsession as a growth strategy that enables corporate plans over chronic heroism that can interfere with other priorities.

Remember these four dimensions to determine your approach to customer obsession: 1. The Why What is your reason for pursuing customer obsession now? 2. The Scope What is a reasonable way to manifest customer obsession for your business, based on capabilities and customer expectations? 3. The Value How much will customer obsession bring to you? 4. The Breakdown How exactly will day-to-day work change -- for everyone -- in order to achieve your scope?

Plot out what you need in order to build your customer-obsessed approach.

Your model for your expression of customer obsession will guide how you transform your operations. Remember that customer obsession is an ongoing way of working, not an end state. It’s not a mindset or a passion for the customer — it’s a way of operating a business. You’ll need a clear vision of where you want to go to rally enterprisewide participation and create a successful strategy for the transformation.

Sketch out your ideal state, find images that express what that looks like, and then list how customers will feel once you are customer-obsessed. Your model for your expression of customer obsession will guide how you transform your operations.

Look to examples for how to start.

To help you think more tangibly about operationalizing customer obsession in your own business, it can be helpful to look at where others have found success. Here are a few examples:

  1. Nordstrom
    “The Nordstrom Way” defines the standard for unequaled customer service across industries, not just in retail. Nordstrom believes in hiring people who share its values and then trusting them to build profitable customer relationships.
  2. AARP
    AARP’s CX transformation isn’t just to fix inconsistent customer interactions. The organization wants a new way of working for the long term so that it can flexibly advocate for each of the diverse populations of Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials, who will make up its constituency by 2030. Customer input — that they rely on AARP to reduce the complexity of life events, like going through an employment or mobility change — clearly established AARP’s purpose as a customer advocate. Further internal meetings identified critical work streams, targeted possible barriers, and assigned responsibilities to catalyze progress.

Take a deliberate approach to operations.

Customer obsession means putting customers first rather than keeping traditional concerns such as process efficiencies at the center of operations. Although that’s a big change for many companies, there are a multitude of reasons why it’s important for today’s businesses.

To operate in customer-obsessed ways, leaders must:

  • Infuse the company with four principles. Firms must become: 1) customer-led, which means using an understanding of customers’ desires and motivations to guide every decision; 2) insights-driven, which entails using the right data to grasp customers’ true desires and motivations; 3) fast, which requires constantly reinventing the business to keep pace with customers’ needs; and 4) connected, which involves eliminating obstacles to cooperation within the organization and with its partners.
  • Interconnect all the levers of enterprisewide operations. There are many ways to dissect enterprise operations in all their complexity. Forrester finds that it’s most useful for companies that pursue customer obsession to portray operations in terms of six levers: culture, structure, people, process, technology, and metrics. All these levers are related, so you need a comprehensive approach to ensure that difficulties with some levers don’t hold others back.
  • Align operations with the right strategy for customer obsession. Operations enable strategy; they don’t fix it. That’s why each company must ensure that it has the right strategy for customer obsession before aligning its operations with that strategy. Otherwise, you risk propelling your company toward the wrong goals and missing the benefits that you seek.

Audit your operations to know what to change.

Evaluate how well each lever of your organization’s operations contributes to your company’s strategy for customer obsession. Incorporate points of view from throughout the organization, as people at different levels of seniority and in different business units can have different, but equally legitimate, perspectives. For example, we often find that senior executives are more confident about a company’s culture than frontline employees are. Similarly, it’s common for back-office employees to be more sanguine about processes than customer-facing employees are.

Transform all six levers of operations to enable customer obsession.

There’s no simple or ideal formula for operating in a customer-obsessed way because companies with dissimilar strategies must embody customer obsession in their operations differently. Even so, the scope and themes of each operational lever remain the same, regardless of how each company adapts their operations to match their strategy.

  • Culture: the shared values and beliefs that drive behavior. Firms can’t bribe, cajole, or force a customer-obsessed culture onto their employees; it’s more effective to define the culture that represents the brand and then trust staff to live it.
  • Structure: the configuration of the organization. Structures that remove friction, enable autonomy, and adapt regularly in response to market changes help companies make balanced decisions fast.
  • People: talent management and employee experience practices. Business results improve with empowered, inspired, and enabled teams.
  • Processes: the ways people work and make decisions. Companies that put customers at the center of their workflows and decision-making procedures throughout the enterprise improve both quality and efficiency.
  • Technology: the systems and tools that enable processes. Companies with adaptive, creative, and resilient tech strategies outperform their industries by 300% to 400%. A future technology strategy will enable customer obsession now and in the future.
  • Metrics: the strategic measurements that drive business decisions. Customer-obsessed firms embrace a set of complementary metrics that are role-relevant and rooted in the customer lifecycle to power customer-obsessed trade-offs and create a culture of accountability and action.

Decide which tasks to tackle first.

Brainstorm a list of projects to improve the weakest aspects of operations and then evaluate each idea for its feasibility and degree of impact on operations. The projects that are easiest to execute and that have the biggest impact should be your top priority. Projects that will have a big impact but that are harder to implement are the second-highest priority. Quick wins can catalyze momentum and kick-start your culture’s readiness for more ambitious efforts. Avoid projects that are unlikely to have a strong positive effect, even if they’re easy to implement, because they’ll draw scarce resources — especially time and attention — away from more vital work.

Inspire every employee to work in a customer-obsessed way.

Executives decide corporate strategy and operations, but it is the actions of the workers that determine whether executive decisions succeed or fail. To convince all the employees at your firm to overhaul the way they work, you need them to understand and value their role in your company’s customer-obsessed vision. Here’s how:

  • Show them why they should bother. The “corporate turnaround” hook won’t be as motivating to staff as using customer obsession as the call to action to achieve a higher purpose for their community and society overall. This starts with leaders demonstrating their willingness to be pushed out of their comfort zone in order to pursue customer obsession.
  • Make change comfortable. People are naturally averse to change. So instead of abruptly pivoting, wise leaders gradually guide staff to be poised, enlightened, adaptable, and knowledge-seeking.

Further Reading

As market dynamics continue to shift and customers around the world become increasingly empowered, customer obsession has become a key to sustained growth. For more on how to chart a path to customer obsession, check out:


Find Your Firm’s Path To Customer Obsession

Customer obsession means putting the customer at the center of your business leadership, strategy, and operations. Learn how to define and operationalize a successful customer obsession strategy on this episode of What It Means with VP, Principal Analyst Shar VanBoskirk.

The Customer Lifecycle Is The Design Muse To Accelerate Your Journey To Customer Obsession

Learn how the Forrester Customer Lifecycle Framework helps B2B and B2C business leaders — enterprisewide! — calibrate what are too often internally focused processes instead of the customer’s process and perspective in order to become more customer-obsessed.

Forrester can help you build a customer-obsessed enterprise.

Customer obsession is an easy concept to get behind but can be difficult to put into action. At Forrester, customer obsession is at the core of everything we do. We can help you achieve customer obsession to fuel sustained growth.

Forrester’s portfolio of offerings is informed by our exclusive research and insights, designed to help you build a customer-obsessed enterprise. Contact us to learn more.

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