John O’Connor interviewed on “Down To Business” with Bobby Kerr

Last Saturday, our CEO John O’Connor was interviewed on Newstalk’s Down To Business weekend radio programme about his new book Customer At The Heart. If you missed the show, here’s that conversation between Bobby and John again.

Quite a few topics were covered in the short interview with Bobby Kerr. The one that I enjoyed most was the concept of “sacking the customer” – being honest about when you can’t service particular clients and choosing instead to concentrate on customers where you know you can excel.

Feel free to get in touch with us if you want to hear more about Deep-Insight’s work in helping CEOs create customer-centric organisations. And if you want to find out more about dealing with clients that are Opponents and Stalkers, just click here for another blog on the topic.

Craig Johnson
Customer Relationship Advisor, Deep-Insight

Purchase on Amazon

Customer At The Heart

Bobby Kerr: A lot of words have been said and written about putting the customer first but many businesses and business leaders struggle to move away from product and technology-based models to ones that are truly customer-centric. So how hard can it actually be? John O’Connor is the CEO of Cork-based company Deep-Insight and he is the co-author of Customer At The Heart: how B2B leaders build successful customer-centric organisations. John, you’re very welcome to the programme. Tell me a little about your background and what inspired you to write this customer-centric book.

John O’Connor: First of all, you need to be a big mad to write a business book. I was saying earlier that we’re not going to knock Margaret Atwood off the top of the Amazon charts even though the book is available on Amazon. So why did we write the book? One question has been rattling around in my mind for the last 15 years that I’ve been running Deep-Insight. At Deep-Insight, we gather feedback for Business-to-Business (B2B) customers with the objective of getting our clients to use that feedback to build deeper client relationships. Sometimes we tell our clients “You’ve got a fantastic set of customers who love you to death.” Other times it’s a case of: “They hate your service and want to move away from you”. In that second case, it seems phenomenally difficult for our clients to move the dial and really improve their customer scores. Or if they can improve, it takes them a long, long time. So the question we had in our minds was: “Why does it take so long, and what is it that you have to do to transform an organisation to be truly customer-centric?”

Bobby: I once worked with a guy who used to tell me that a customer was somebody that allows you to make a profit. That was his definition of a customer. If you have a customer that doesn’t allow you to make a profit – because they are high-maintenance, they take up time, you have to manage them and you find that you can’t make a profit – how do you deal with that situation?

How to ‘Sack A Customer’

John: So here’s a little trick. You’ll find that in any portfolio of customers, probably a third are ‘Ambassadors’ for you and another 40 or 50 percent are good ‘Rational’ customers. Then a small percentage are what we call ‘Ambivalents’, ‘Stalkers’ or ‘Opponents’. What you should do is take your Opponents by the hand and walk them down to your competitor’s office and say “There you go…”

Bobby: “…here’s the guy you’ve been looking for…”

John: Yes. Basically you should not be afraid of sacking customers that you can’t service properly.

Bobby: So it’s almost like putting your hands up and saying “You know what, you’d be better off going elsewhere” and hoping that they will go elsewhere and cost your competitor money?

John: It is. But if you have those hard conversations… honest conversations… with the customer, either you will turn that relationship around or they’ll move off and allow you to spend time with the clients that you can really do some good for.

Getting your clients to design your products

Bobby: It’s interesting what you say, John. You know, we look at customers almost on a product basis. In other words: I make this product, I sell it to the customer, I’m finished with him now I want to find the next customer. Once the sale is made, that’s the end of the journey. But it’s only really the beginning. Is that right?

John: Yes, but but it’s also the wrong starting point for the journey. If you have a product-centric mindset, you are basically building something that you hope somebody is going to buy. A much better way is working with your customers to try to craft the next generation of products or the next set of widgets that you’re going to manufacture. Because once they are manufactured, the client has already bought them. After all, they’ve actually help you to design them in the first place. And very few companies have figured out how to do that properly.

Customer-Centred Leaders

Bobby: And when you talk about leadership, what are the customer-centred leadership traits that you would see in an organisation.

John: First of all I would say but if you haven’t got good leadership in an organisation, you’re never going to transform the company to being customer centric. The companies that have done very well are ones where you have a really, really passionate leader who does put the customer at the heart of everything. The second thing is that they intuitively understand that by doing the right thing for the customer, the profits will follow. The third thing is they are also very good at executing a plan or a strategy to put the customer at the heart of everything. Now they can be ‘Big Picture’ people but they know how to put together a team that will get things done, and will be relentless about making sure that it happens.

Bobby: When you look at the challenges of big organisations like utility companies, banks… you know: those organisations that everybody loves to hate where they provide a service based automated telephone answering machines… How can those organisations become customer-centric in a real way?

John: Well the focus of our book was business-to-business organisations. We were very lucky and got to talk to people like Gavin Patterson, the CEO of BT but it was very much on the B2B side of things. We talked to David Thodey in Australia who was CEO of Telstra, their biggest telecommunications company. We talked to people in eBay, HP and Atos but the focus was really more on B2B. Regardless of the industry, you can be either very customer-centric or not at all. And if you’re not at all customer-centric, that’s a pretty difficult place to be.

Culture change

Bobby: When you talk about culture in a company, the culture can sometimes turn sour. How can you use the customer to enact change in the company’s culture?

John: Well, one of the other traits of being a good customer-centric leader is that you never let a good crisis go to waste. A lot of good leaders will use the customer as a platform to try to change the culture of the organisation. They’re constantly talk about the last customer visit that they had, the last product that they developed in conjunction with that customer. By continually doing that and by getting the customer into every discussion, people in organisations will start to follow the direction of their leaders.

Bobby: And finally, John, is it true that if you can get the customer to be your ambassador – in other words, the customer is talking about your business being the best business known to man – that’s the most powerful advocate that you can have? It trumps any advertising or any marketing that any company could do?

John: Absolutely. We called those ‘Ambassadors’ and as I said, about a third of your customers should be ‘Ambassadors.’ Even if another 40% are ‘Rationals’ who don’t believe you are truly “unique” but they are good customers all the same, those Ambassadors and Rationals are the clients that will deliver your sales for the rest of this year and into the following years.

Bobby: Well it’s a fascinating subject. John O’Connor is the CEO of Cork-based company Deep-Insight and the co-author of that new book on customer centric organisations. Thanks very much for joining us, John.

What is Innovation?

As a Customer Relationship Advisor at Deep-Insight, a lot of clients ask me about innovation. How do I make it happen? What prevents it from happening? How do you create an innovation culture? Very often people ask me: “What exactly is innovation?”

Now that’s a very good question.

To find out, our CEO John O’Connor recently spent some time with a man who knows all about innovation – Rob Baldock, Managing Director of Clustre, the Innovation Brokers.

I hope you enjoy the interview, and if it sparks any questions, please do get in touch with us.

Craig Johnson
Customer Relationship Advisor, Deep-Insight

The Innovation Pits Crew

“Innovation is about looking for a cracking problem and then trying to solve it”

John O’Connor: Rob, your biography says that you are the MD of Clustre, the Innovation Brokers and that you’re celebrating your 50th year as an innovator this year. Can you tell me more about your 50 years of innovating?

Rob Baldock: Sure. It all started in 1969 when I watched the most extraordinary thing on TV. Two men set foot on the moon. That was something that struck me as being incredibly significant at the time. That was real innovation, particularly when you consider that they were sent to the moon using a computer that wasn’t remotely as powerful as a modern smartphone. Another influence at that time was my maths teacher at school who got us involved with programming at the local polytechnic. While some of my friends were very interested in using this opportunity to play computer games, my mind was moved towards using their computer to solve problems. Even at the early age of 14, I was starting to zone in on one of the essential principles of innovation – look for a cracking problem and then try to solve it.

Innovation = Sales

Rob: I remember at the time, our school was compiling statistics for the local council. The person doing this work was moaning about how tedious and time consuming this task was. I thought this is a cracking problem waiting to be solved. So back in 1969, at the age of 14, I convinced the local council that I could write a computer program that could do this and even persuaded them to pay me to do this for them! So I quickly learnt another principle of innovation – you need to be a good salesperson too.

Rob: By the way, the other interesting thing about the moon landing is that John F Kennedy didn’t know if it was even possible in 1961 when he challenged NASA in to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. It may have been ‘Mission Impossible’ but there’s nothing like a seemingly impossible task to concentrate the mind.

Time Pressure as Enabler

Rob: Another situation which influenced me was the problem encountered on board Apollo 13 which should have been the third moon landing but turned out to be literally a life and death problem for three astronauts. With no more than some slide rulers, a basic simulator, some pens and paper, a lot of brainpower and some real time pressure, a small team of people innovated a solution to save the three astronauts. Innovation starts with a cracking problem and is actually helped by applying time pressure to it.

Rob: One of the firms we represent sets itself the challenge of coming up with a solution to a problem within a month or so. Problem to prototyping in a 4 week time-frame. That may or may not always be possible but the time pressure imposed by that 4-week timeframe is important. I have found that creative minds work based when placed under time pressure!

John: That’s a nice segue into the definition of what invention is. You talk about ‘Invention versus Innovation.’ What do you mean by that?

Rob: Innovation is about finding ways to do something differently or better. That’s the essence of innovation. Innovation is not always synonymous with the with game-changing ideas. In fact, new inventions are few and far between. For example, look at Uber. Uber is an example of Innovation rather than Invention. All of the components were there already: cars, drivers, sat nav, smartphones… but Uber has managed to pull it all together into an app and deliver a truly disruptive service via a smartphone.

“Innovation is as much about speed as it is about creativity”

John: It’s a great example but Uber is a modern tech company. What about traditional companies? How should they approach innovation?

Rob: Innovation is a hot topic in traditional companies too and it’s about asking the question “what does it require us to do differently?” Remember we are in the era of mass disruption. What is different today is the speed with which you can create something from nothing. You can disrupt or be disrupted in a very short timeframe which means you need to do things at speed. In fact, it’s as much about speed as it is about creativity.

John: But traditional companies are not usually known for speed…

Rob: If it’s too hard to do internally, then companies need to recreate themselves outside the confines of the current organisation. Look at the banks in the UK. Many have come to the conclusion that it’s easier to create a new standalone business bank than trying to re-engineer their existing operations.

Rob: Another example is Rightmove which was created in 2000 by the top four corporate estate agencies in the UK. It was a standalone entity that competed against its founders. Now Rightmove has a valuation which is greater than the combined value of the estate agents that got together to build it. Another example is the mobile operator Giffgaff which was set up by O2’s owners Telefonica in 2009 and is ranked as one of the most innovative companies in the industry.

John: Are there other ways of being innovative which don’t require you to recreate yourself or implement such radical solutions?

Rob: Yes, of course. You need to establish a culture of customer-led experimentation.

John: Can you explain…

“Just by involving the customer, the success rate increased to 9 out of 10”

Rob: Let me give you an example. Another firm in our network worked with a major international publishing company to look at the way they created new products. At the time, this company had a 3 in 10 success rate with new product launches. That wasn’t sustainable. They needed to improve their hit rate. We showed them a different way of approaching the problem by working with their target customer groups from the beginning. Just by involving the customer, the success rate increased to 9 out of 10. We know that the very act of involving customers in the innovation process will dramatically increase the likely success rate.

John: What are the main roadblocks to Innovation, and do you need to throw money at the problem?

Rob: Roadblocks? It’s lots of things – bureaucracy, structural barriers, culture, and so on. But remember that Innovation must also be thought of as a process, and one of the key things in innovation is to have a hypothesis and to be able to test it. That’s a key technique. And it doesn’t need to involve huge cost.

“Poverty is the mother of invention”

Rob: Let me give you an example. We were talking to an operator of some leisure centres where they faced a problem of members sharing their membership cards with friends and allowing them to use the leisure centre’s services without paying. One of the potential solutions with the use of facial recognition to identify if the card holder was actually the real owner of the membership card. The hypothesis was that the introduction of facial recognition software would deter this behaviour so they went ahead and bought some of this tech to try out . But they didn’t need to actually buy the tech to test this hypothesis out. They could have simply put up a sign saying “We are trialling facial recognition in this leisure centre.” That alone would have been enough to test the hypothesis! Remember: poverty is the mother of invention.

John: Thank you Rob, that was fascinating. Where can we find out more about Clustre’s work on innovation?

Rob: Easy. Just go to our website or drop me an email at