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GUEST OPINION What does it take to be really customer-centric?

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Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of the famous London department store, coined the phrase ‘the customer is always right’ in 1909. And today, more than 100 years later, it’s still the cornerstone of any modern retailer’s strategy. But what does it mean to be truly customer-centric in the digital age? Gavin Mee, Senior Vice President and Head of UK, Salesforce offers some answers

But while that strategy has stayed the same, customer requirements have shifted quite significantly. In fact,over the last few years we’ve seen a seismic shift in both customer expectation and technology innovation. This has changed the way customers interact with brands. Today’s connected shoppers dictate how, when, and where they engage retailers and make purchases. What’s more, purchase “journeys” are no longer linear – they can involve a blend of online and offline touch points, which further fragments the process.

It’s no surprise, then, that retailers have invested heavily to become more customer-centric in recent years. In some cases online only retailers and innovative startups have responded more quickly to these new customer demands, challenging some of the traditional players.

However while retailers across the board have made efforts to reimagine the customer experience, you only have to glance at the streams of complaints on Twitter and Facebook to see that the results have been fairly mixed.

Consequently, leading brands are starting to take a new approach to customer centricity and are redeveloping operational and organisational models to focus more heavily on the customer – and they’re drawing on the support of a collaborative ecosystem of partners that can enable retailers to offer a personalised blend of products and services to customers wherever, whenever and however.

This approach exists for one key purpose – to better serve the customer. And working alongside Accenture, we’ve explored this next stage of retail transformation. Based on our conversations with brands at varying stages of their journey, we’ve identified six key characteristics retailers need to develop in order to thrive in the coming decade.


Organisational culture is one of the most difficult of these six characteristics to change, but it’s also one of the most powerful. There are two key elements that retailers need to focus on when considering their company culture. First the culture should ‘empassion’ all employees to focus on continually improving the customer experience. Second, employees need to be empowered to achieve customer centricity. By breaking down silos between different business functions, it’s possible to create a fully joined-up customer experience by ensuring that information flows freely to the point where it’s most needed.


Traditional retailers are continually being challenged by innovative disruptors and digital startups. Brands need to be able to truly communicate how their offerings fit into customers’ lives and what sets their products and services apart from the rest of the market. Employees are a vital conduit for these messages. Consequently the vision should also help employees to understand how their role upholds it. This is true for all employees and needs to be applied from the C-suite right through to store associates who embody the brand on the shop floor.

Market Insight

The pace of change in this sector can be hard to keep up with, let alone anticipate. Market insight helps retailers understand which disruptions are gaining momentum from customers, competitors, technology, and startups. Interestingly, this insight often comes from front-line employees. They’re the ones who can easily gather and share actionable insights. Successful men’s clothing retailer SuitSupply, for example, leverages its stylists within each store to learn about customers, and create a “product centre” that containers a variety of items based on their local tastes and preferences. This information is then shared with different teams across the business feeding into product development, marketing and service.


Keeping up with the pace of change in the industry also relies on innovation. Successful retailers continually encourage, nurture, execute and measure new ideas. They also understand that good ideas can come from anyone at any level or in any department. What’s more, our research shows that measuring the success of new innovations in a consistent way makes them much more effective.

Data Intelligence

Increasingly retailers understand that giving employees a single view of all customer data is directly linked to efficiency, productivity, innovation – and of course an improved customer experience. Of the brands we spoke to in our study, those who had teams trained to analyse and act upon customer data were able to make more meaningful business decisions. True Religion Brand Jeans is one such example. The company pulls online and instore customer data, like purchase history, into a single record. Store associates are then able to access this information, via their Apple Watches, to deliver a more personalised experience to customers.


Typically we think of only small businesses as being agile. However, to maximise the power of the other five characteristics, retailers must be able to respond to change quickly, regardless of size. The industry isn’t static, so business operations can’t afford to be either. Often a few tweaks to internal processes can make a big difference to agility, for example, empowering employees to make decisions in real time rather than waiting for the monthly management meeting.

It’s important to note that many retailers are addressing these six characteristics already, but frequently they’re handled in a piecemeal fashion. The challenge now is for every retailer to implement the six with full synergy to create real change. The agreement on the approach is there already – more than seventy percent of the retailers we talked with said that material or significant organisational change is required to satisfy customer demands across increasingly complex touchpoints.

Connected customers need a new retail approach. By harnessing flexible processes, infrastructure and decision-making to manage a connected ecosystem that serves customers, and focusing on driving all six characteristics above, the retailers of today can create a solid roadmap that prepares them for success in the market now – and in the future.

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