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If being customer first is so important, why don't companies do it?

Technology may help enterprises deliver better customer experiences, but there are a lot of things--notably culture--in the way.

Enterprise vendors love to talk about technologies that enable companies to build customer experiences that build loyalty as well as sales and profit growth. The problem: This customer first mantra has been repeated for years yet businesses typically lose the plot.

Being customer first sounds fairly easy, but all you need to do is work with three companies in your personal orbit in one day and you quickly realize two will stink. Phone trees, clunky experiences, data silos and people who just don't care are just some of the not-so-subtle hints that customer first is easier said than done.

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This customer conundrum haunted me last week as Salesforce rolled out Customer 360. The big idea is that customers would get one identifier and corporate systems would be integrated to share data. This. Is. Not. A. Unique. Idea. In fact, SAP, Oracle, Microsoft and a bunch of others talk about the 360 degree view of the customer.

Salesforce maintains its approach is what's unique this time. There's little question that the timing is right. Companies want to be customer centric, but it's hard to change decades of bad practices across technology and business. "In all cases, our customers' digital transformation is beginning and ending with their customer," said Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff at the company's analyst meeting last week.

Corporate America will determine whether the customer-first approach will play out this time. I'm not optimistic. Simply put, Amazon and its customer obsession shouldn't be rare, but it is.

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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in his 2016 shareholder letter set the scene (see Bezos' 2017, 2018 takeaways).

There are many ways to center a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality.

Most enterprises are focused on a lot of things other than the customer. And the technology systems behind these customer experiences get some play, but aren't the total IT focus.

So why aren't we on this customer focused bandwagon yet? Here are some thoughts.

Culture. "For each company we have to listen," said Benioff. Listening is a cultural trait and if your company doesn't do it executives, employees and customers will bail. Bezos noted that companies can mistakenly wind up using surveys and processes to become proxies for knowing your customer. Whatever customer issues a company faces rest assured that culture is far more important than some technology.

Technical debt. IT isn't everything, but old disconnected systems and bad architecture choices sure don't help the customer cause. Companies have boxed themselves in. The money slide from Salesforce illustrates a customer experience at an average financial services firm. That slide represents most companies too.

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Neither IT nor the business is customer focused. Here's a fun homework assignment: Randomly ask coworkers who your customer is. You'll get a bunch of answers depending on the role of the worker, but the most obvious one--the end customer--will get the least mentions. I've seen hundreds of IT spending surveys over the years and customer experience never rates as a priority. The business is also trying to balance customer experiences and profits. The groups closest to the customer are viewed as cost centers. Here's a 2019 view from Tech Pro Research.

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Shouldn't spending on customer experiences be seen like security?

Technology vendors often aren't customer focused. There are plenty of technology companies that think shareholders are their true customers. Many vendors cut corners, scrimp on innovation and overpromise and underdeliver. Technology vendors' core competency often revolves around cross-selling you more stuff with a health dose of buzzwords (digital transformation, cloud, AI, machine learning etc.). And since customers do crazy things like give up leverage and lock themselves in these vendors have the green light to treat you way worse than a new prospect.

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Despite those aforementioned pessimistic points, the customer first approach is worth fighting for. There won't be any magic bullets though.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener

The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.

Previously on Monday Morning Opener:

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