Some companies like to call it being "customer centric" when thinking about experiences with their brand; others call it "human-centered design," specifically around products they've created. I'm not here to lecture you about what the correct nomenclature is to use, but I do know this is true: when it comes to building something, whether it be a company, a brand, a product, or an experience, if you aren't starting from the viewpoint of the person that may be impacted by what you're trying to create, you're just not doing it right....
Let me admit something first: lately, I've been somewhat of a podcast addict. I have a 45+ minute drive to work and back every day to Framingham, so it provides me with a good chunk of the day to binge on at least 2 podcasts per day (tip: playback at 1.2x is actually ok when you get used to it. Bring it up to 1.3x first where they start sounding like Alvin the Chipmunks, and then slow it down a bit). Recently, I listened to a couple of interesting podcasts, and couldn't stop thinking about how perfect they were to tell the significance of customer centricity when building something. The first is a success story, and the second is more of a failure. Let's go!!
This is the story of Suroosh Alvi, founder of VICE. Alvi was a recovering heroin addict in Montreal, and fell into an opportunity to help build an underground magazine in Montreal. That magazine became VICE, which is now valued at $4 billion, and counts FOX and Disney (Editor's note: Disney?! Talk about a contradiction with their brand image...) in its pool of investors. Shane Smith may be the face of the organization, but Alvi built it from the ground up - Alvi mentions a great tidbit about the first time they met, at a bar, with Smith high & drunk. This story alone is worth a listen to the podcast.
Even on the surface, this is just an amazing success story....but here's my biggest takeaway: when Alvi talks about how he specifically wanted to build the company, he was laser-focused on writing not from the viewpoint of the journalist, but from that of the interviewee; the subject. This, my friends, is the definition of being customer centric. From Alvi: "We wanted to be authentic. We wanted to build real content. We didn't go to journalism school, so the best way to do that is to get as close to the source as possible. If we were going to write an article about the prostitution community in Montreal, let's get the prostitutes to write that story. And let's go out with pimps as they drive around and interview them..." As a fan of VICE myself (Never seen it? Check out the tv series on HBO as an intro - here is the best episode. Fairly timely, given the current situation with North Korea), I can tell you it is the exact reason why I watch it. It's like 60 Minutes on steroids. There is no better way to tell an authentic story than to personally weave yourself into that story with an unbiased firsthand perspective.
In short, this is the story of how Georgetown University once sold off 250+ slaves to pay off its debt in order to prevent a total shutdown of the university, and the debate over what retributions Georgetown should pay for this deplorable move in their history. Lending only one sentence to this fascinating story does not do it justice, so please either listen to the podcast in its entirety or start by reading this article from the New York Times....but here's the part I want to unpack a bit more: when this atrocity was uncovered recently, Georgetown created a "Working Group" to conduct a deep dive of the school's links to slavery and determine a path for reparation.
Now, this is great in concept....until it becomes known (quite dramatically) that the one piece of research this Working Group failed to ever compile was perhaps the most important: they never asked a descendant of any of the families that had actually been impacted by Georgetown's actions what their expectations were in terms of the reparations. As Joe Stewart, a descendant of the 272, said: "If reconciliation is going to take place as it has to, it needs to start at home....and you don't reconcile by alienating..." [15:30 into the podcast]. How can Georgetown decide what the slave descendants need without asking them what are their own pain points? Although this is not a failure to be empathetic, I'd argue that it is a gross failure to be customer-centric.
Both these stories are not your "typical" examples one might use when advocating for the significance of customer centricity when building a brand or product, but that shouldn't make them any less relevant. Something to think about as you look towards your own company and what improvements can be made to improve. Have you asked the customer what they really want? Have you stepped in their own shoes?
Do you have any other examples of customer centricity "in the wild?" If so, please feel free to comment below. Would love to hear your story! And while you're at it, please subscribe to my website if you are interested in knowing when my next article comes out. I promise I won't spam you!
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