Can Organizations Be Too Customer Focused?

Service Design

Orchestrating experiences in context

A column by Laura Keller
January 27, 2014

You may instinctively answer the question, Can organizations be too customer-focused?, with a resounding of course not! That’s certainly my instinct. How could there be any limit on how focused you can be on customers’ needs? Why would you ever want to discourage an organization from being customer focused?

But let me preface my question with an obvious caveat: If an organization were to be a potential target of an inquiry into its being too customer focused, it would likely have had good intentions in attempting to focus on the needs of its customers. It would likely be trying to improve its relationships with its customers by making their experiences with the organization good ones. It would also likely have historically received criticism from customers for creating bad experiences—a situation that they want to rectify.

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Any actions that an organization takes to improve their customers’ experiences deserve recognition. However, I believe that many organizations’ efforts toward becoming more customer focused—well intentioned though they may be—work better in theory than in execution. Organizations and their employees may make short-sighted or even rash decisions in the spirit of becoming customer centric, and this can have devastating effects on the very experiences they are trying to improve.

In this column, I’ll describe some of my own experiences in interacting with organizations that made well-intentioned attempts to become customer centered, but ultimately made decisions that had negative consequences on their customer experience. I’ll also outline how good principles of effective service design can help organizations to be more appropriately customer focused.

Building Permits: Feeling Special Isn’t Always a Good Thing

My husband and I were hiring a contractor to do some minor exterior work on our house, and he said we would need to obtain a permit for him to do the work. However, he also told us that he had already started a permit process for similar work with the local building department, that the permit was ready to be picked up, and we would just need to change the address. So I went to the building department and noticed four employees behind a long counter—two were seated at desks, while two others were waiting on customers or contractors. I sat down in the waiting area, which was empty. After 5 to 10 minutes of waiting, one of the employees asked what I needed:

  • I explained the situation. He nodded in understanding and asked for the address of the original permit.
  • I provided it, and he said, “Okay, give me a few minutes.”
  • He returned with what seemed to be the permit and asked for my address.
  • I provided it, and he said, “Okay, your permit will be ready in 3 to 4 days. I need two cashier’s checks for the associated fees.”

I was confused because our contractor hadn’t mentioned any fees or the extra time it would take to obtain the permit. So I explained to the employee that we had a contractor ready to start working tomorrow and that I had thought the permit was ready to go. He sensed my aggravation and disappointment and said, “Well, Tuesday is the worst case, but it may be ready today. This is pretty simple, so it’ll likely be ready earlier.” Frustrated, I said, “Okay, well, I guess I need to get the cashier’s checks anyway. I’ll go to the bank to get them and be back in a few minutes.”

Then I went to a nearby bank, returning 15 minutes later with the cashier’s checks. Now, six customers were in the waiting room, and all of the employees were busy helping people, but I didn’t see the employee with whom I had been working. I waited a few minutes, intercepted one employee and explained, “Excuse me. I was here earlier and just needed to drop off the cashier’s checks for the permit. I was working with a blond man, whom I don’t see right now. Do you know if he’s still here?”

He didn’t seem frustrated by my interruption, but I could tell he was frazzled by how busy the office had become. He asked for my address and began looking for the paperwork, which I didn’t expect. I assumed that he would tell me where the other employee was. Fortunately, the original employee who had been helping me walked in, nodded in recognition of me, and said, “You’re back already? Well, the permit’s almost ready to go, I just need to get a manager’s signature.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Yeah, well, it was simple, just like I said.” He then proceeded to ask his coworkers whether one of the managers was available, so he could get the necessary signature. I gave him the cashier’s checks and happily left with the permit, thankful that I didn’t have to return to the building department or delay our contractor.

Process Issues Lead to Mistrust

While many would argue that I should be a very satisfied customer because the employees at the building department seemingly had expedited the process of getting my permit, I contend that their customer-focused approach actually hindered my trust in the service.

First, the employee was quick to tout a standard timeline of 3 to 4 days, but equally quick to backtrack and say, “Well, it might be ready today.” In fact, it was ready in 20 minutes. I left confused about whether the department even had a standard permitting process and, if so, how well they enforced it. When customers interact with a service, they want to trust it. But not only did I leave the building department thinking that they didn’t have a good, standardized process in place, I left with less trust because the person from whom I obtained the permit set one service expectation, then changed it. It also left me thinking that, if people complain, they’ll simply get what they want. Instead, the department should have consistent processes for handling standard service requests in place, and they should clearly communicate a process prior to starting it.

Second, upon my return to the department with my cashier’s checks, I interrupted an employee’s activities in the hope that he would be able to direct me to the employee who was originally assisting me. Instead, he began to help me himself. He literally stopped what he was doing, abandoning the person he was helping. Some would argue, “Well, wasn’t that a good thing—you received immediate support.” I argue, however, that I would have preferred to know that there was a method to the work than to have received immediate assistance. Knowing that there’s a process the building department follows would mean they would treat every customer the same, every time. I don’t want to leave thinking that, next time, I could be one of the people waiting, and they might take someone outside the queue ahead of me.

Takeaway—Although this may seem counterintuitive, the reality is that, ideally, customers should not feel as though an organization has done something special or unique solely for them. Rather, customers should feel as though their experience is predictable and consistent. Then, if the experience is a good one, they’ll think, This is how I can expect it to be every time.

Honda’s Love Letters

While my previous example regarding my building-department experience focused on process-related issues and customer-centricity, I have also encountered issues where companies intended their communications with customers to appear service oriented and customer centered, but they ultimately came across as insincere.

One example is Honda. My husband and I recently purchased a Honda CRV. The research and purchasing experience was positive overall. We had looked at a few options online, we test drove the cars, and ultimately, decided on the CRV. A large contributing factor in this decision was our past experience with Hondas. They are known for reliability, safety, and quality. So, overall, the service experience at the dealership, in combination with our great experience with the product itself, led to us being happy customers.

After making our purchase, however, my opinion changed. I received a lovely, glossy brochure titled with words to the effect of “Congrats on the start of your financial journey with us.” I write, words to the effect of because I proceeded to recycle it as soon as I received it. I didn’t understand the brochure. Should I, as a recent customer, expect to experience a financial journey—which implies ups and downs, laughter and tears, and so on—during my 5-year transactional payment plan with Honda?

Although I’m not privy to the insights that led to the creation of this glossy—and I’m sure expensive—mailing, I imagine most people did what I did, added it to their community’s municipal recycling collection bin. Likely a marketing firm pitched the need to be customer focused to Honda: Make the Honda brand feel personal to the customer. Make the customer feel like you’re in this together. Make the customer feel like this is a true relationship.

But such efforts are misguided. Does anyone want to think about their financial debt to a car company as a personal journey? Would Honda be amenable if I said, “Hey, Honda, I’m going to have to miss a few payments, but that’s okay, right? We’re buddies, you and I. You said so in your first communication to me.” No, of course not. Now, my previously great experience with Honda left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Honda can do better.

Communications Lead to Confusion and Less Respect

Honda made a mistake that many brands make: they didn’t let their product and experience speak for itself, with communications playing a support role. Instead, they created a brand for their communications that was disconnected from the overall experience. Honda’s brand is one of reliability, quality, safety, and long-term value.┬áThose are the attributes I expect their marketing materials to reflect. Using language like starting your “financial journey” didn’t make me think we have a strong relationship. At best, I was confused and thought Honda needs to find itself before trying to connect with me; at worst, it made me think Honda is patronizing and insincere.

Takeaway—Rather than attempting to create customer-centricity through marketing buzzwords, organizations should explore what people really want and expect from their interactions with them and let their communications reflect that.

Blind Evangelism in Organizations

While my previous two examples focused on direct customer impact from an organization’s misguided customer-centricity, my final example focuses on the organization itself.

As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, much of my work centers on experiences within an organization: the processes, services, people, and communications that make the jobs of employees easier and, in turn, result in better experiences for their external customers. Several of my clients have rolled-out enterprise-wide initiatives to focus on customers more and emphasize the importance of easy, intuitive, and meaningful experiences. For some, such initiatives are still just words with no real execution plan or carry-through. But others have updated employees’ performance plans, added line items to their budgets, trained employees on good design practices, and made sweeping changes to their processes and procedures. Employees are taking customer-centricity seriously, looking for every way in which they can fulfill this corporate requirement and, thus, be able to say that they are thinking about their customers differently.

The problem: many employees in such organizations have nothing to do with customers. While this may sound foreign to those of us who live and breathe user experience, many people in this world work on things where human interaction is not a strong consideration. Take, for example, engineers who are working on minuscule, internal parts for a mobile device or medical researchers who are trying to innovate the next blockbuster pharmaceutical product. Imagine those employees attending a mandatory meeting about improving the experience for people. How could they even relate?

Change Management Leads to Employee Dissatisfaction or Worse

The organizations that I’ve described are not applying their own lens of customer-centricity and service design practices to their change-management efforts. While I commend them for trying to pervasively integrate good UX design practices into their operations, they need to take a step back and consider the following:

  • Who are all of their employees and what are their roles?
  • Who among their employees are responsible for things that are customer-facing, whether internal or external customers?
  • Do employees who don’t work on anything that’s customer facing have a role to play in such initiatives?
  • If yes, what is that role? If no, just let them do their jobs.

When organizations fail to deliberately decide who should be accountable for becoming more customer focused, they risk severe employee dissatisfaction. Employees who are forced to do something that is completely unrelated to their job feel misunderstood and unappreciated. Forcing customer-focused behavior also risks employees’ making poor decisions. Imagine an engineer’s feeling pressured to be more customer focused. Would he begin to invent ways that the microscopic chip he’s been working on for six months could be easier and more intuitive to use? Would he start to sacrifice his previous inventive and useful ideas—perhaps ideas that would translate into a more useful mobile device down the line—for forced customer-centricity?

Takeaway—Organizations should practice what they preach when rolling out customer-focused initiatives internally and ensure that they’ve analyzed which employees should be involved in them to avoid frustrating employees for whom such activities are irrelevant.


As an experience designer, it’s always easy to find fault with a service experience. We’ve all said things to our friends or loved ones like, when visiting a restaurant or coffee shop, “If they would just do XYZ, this would go quicker.” Designers are critical people, so finding experiences that are great isn’t as easy as finding ones that really could use our help. So when an experience actually indicates that an organization is trying to do the right thing for their customers, as in the examples I’ve mentioned, we want to give them a pass. But we shouldn’t. Being blindly customer focused—with no sensitivity to consistency in your processes, to your brand and communications, or to the impact being customer focused has on your employees—ironically, presents issues similar to those that we’ve historically needed to solve for organizations that aren’t trying to be customer focused. 

Director of Strategy & Experience Design at NTT Data

Woodbridge, New Jersey, USA

Laura KellerLaura’s 10 years of experience have focused on representing the human element in any interaction with a brand through actionable, business-impacting insight gathering and design. At NTT Data, Laura leads cross-channel experience design strategy engagements for clients. Clients have included AstraZeneca, Hachette Book Group, GlaxoSmithKline, Prostate Cancer Foundation, Honeywell, and the NBA. In addition to her Service Design column for UXmatters, Laura has written articles for the Service Design Network’s Touchpoint: The Journal of Service Design, User Experience Magazine, Communication Arts, and Johnny Holland. She has presented on service design at SDN’s Global Service Design Conference, the Usability Professionals’ Association International Conference, IxDA New York City, and IxDA New Jersey.  Read More

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