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.

The ‘Secret Ingredient’ to Creating a Customer-Centric Organisation



What is the secret ingredient for creating a customer-centric organisation?

Since John O’Connor and I embarked upon writing the book Customer at the Heart more than a year ago, I have had the opportunity to meet many people interested in customer centricity. I have also delivered several presentations to small and large business groups on the topic. I probably shouldn’t be surprised, but people often asked me the above question. It indicates that people are curious and keen to embark upon the journey towards customer centricity.

Customer At The Heart

My simple answer: Passionate Leadership is the secret ingredient.

All of the senior executives we interviewed for Customer at the Heart demonstrate this trait. We selected them for this reason – to share their passion. However, over many years of assisting organisations to change and become more customer-centric, I have encountered a spectrum of leaders. I’ll tell a couple of stories, but first I need to explain why Passionate Leadership for customers is so important.

The first premise is that leaders are ultimately accountable for the performance of the organisations. The second is that without happy customers, the organisation won’t exist for very long. The logic is simple. Leaders and their organisations don’t survive unless their customers are happy.

Business Barriers

Unfortunately, a lot of ‘stuff’ can get in the way of that simple equation. Organisations are continuously evolving and changing as the environment changes. This constant movement creates uncertainty and to counter this we develop rules, policies procedures, role descriptions and other bureaucratic tools to maintain control. Much of this inhibits creativity, innovation and sensitivity to the needs of customers.


Then there’s ‘culture’, commonly described as ‘the way we do things around here’. Much of the current culture is derived from the history of the organisation. The people on board the longest see it as a safe haven and permeate it through to newer members of the team. You can really see the entrenched cultures when you merge two organisations. The problem with entrenched culture is that it’s intransigent. We know people resist change because it’s scary – even when it’s bleeding obvious that we have to change to succeed.

Passionate Leadership

Passionate leaders know all this. They’ve usually been there before and they see that their real role is to make change happen. That means challenging the status quo and being prepared to break a few things and rebuild them. They start with the equation ‘happy customers = business performance’ and begin to influence their people into putting customers’ needs into every decision. Alongside that, they challenge their people to question why they do the things they do, unless they ultimately assist the customer. Passionate leaders are risk takers.

How to make it happen?

How do leaders do it? They talk constantly about customers and to customers. They visit customers and they ask and they listen. They seek regular information on the quality of customer relationships.

Next, they act on what they learn. They know they can’t change culture overnight, but they can put in train a series of initiatives – all intended to respond to customers’ needs.

By taking this stance and embarking on the journey towards customer centricity, they begin to influence their people. Some will enthusiastically join in, some will remain passive and some will be obstinate resisters. Gradually the culture will shift – even if it means shedding some of the resisters.

Passionate leaders reinforce the momentum by celebrating successes. Their people become collaborators and contributors to change and they grow into their new identities.

Case Studies

Last year I met with a passionate leader who has been working assiduously with his leadership team and his people on a 5-year transformation to not only adapt the business to a world of disruptive competition, but also to change the internal culture. He’s been doing this ‘brick-by-brick’ so that the company is now clearly differentiated from competitors because of its superior customer service and depth of relationships.

A couple of years ago I endeavoured to assist an organisation in a very competitive industry where profit margins are thin. Their CEO gave lip service to customer centricity to the extent of branding the business as ‘customer-focused’ while doing little else. The corporate priority was to automate as much of the front-line services as possible, and to shed staff. When I interviewed some of its key customers it was obvious that there was a growing problem. One comment I recall was: “next they’ll be offshoring their customer service”. That CEO has since moved on.

I recently met with a relatively new leadership team who are commencing their customer centricity journey. They have many challenges ahead – a legacy of broken promises, little in-depth insight into their customers, staff who are keen but nervous about the future. However, the new CEO will succeed because he has boundless enthusiasm for customer centricity and he has a leadership team who share his vision and the passion. Their first step is to reach out to customers and listen.

The Secret Ingredient

Passionate Leadership is the secret ingredient to building a customer-centric organisation. It’s not the only ingredient. Customer centricity also requires innovation, commitment, time and persistence. It’s also obvious that it will not succeed unless that secret ingredient – ‘passionate leadership’ – is fully activated.

Peter Whitelaw is an Australian consultant providing customer relationship assessments, customer centricity guidance and change management services. Peter has a background in engineering, sales and general management with Hewlett Packard, Tektronix and Optus Communications. For 11 years he was CEO of project and change management training and consulting company Rational Management, training thousands of managers across the world. In recent years he has been lead consultant on several change management and customer centricity projects for both commercial and government organisations.