Today’s article includes an excerpt from my latest book, Built to Win: Designing a Customer-Centric Culture That Drives Value for Your Business (Advantage|ForbesBooks) along with some additional thoughts on the topic.


Did you know that customer-focused and customer-centric do not mean the same thing? Oh, and then add the concept of customer-obsession for more confusion, and you’ve got folks using these terms interchangeably, when they really aren’t interchangeable.


There are a lot of articles that refer to a company’s “customer-centric people,” “customer-centric  behavior,” “customer-centric tips,” “customer-centric marketing,” etc. I’m sure you’ve read many of them. But in the words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

As the articles carry on, it becomes especially clear that the term that should be used is customer-focused behavior. Customer-centric behavior is ingrained in the culture; customer-focused behavior is only for some people (sales, service, customer-facing employees) or happens at some touch points in the organization. (That’s how I view it. They are not two sides of the same coin.)

And that’s what these articles are referring to: tactical things that are being done in that moment to ensure that the customer stays, buys, or returns. (Yes, combining those tactical moments across the enterprise can add up to a customer-centric organization, but there’s so much more to it than that.)

If you’re truly building a customer-centric culture, that means that everyone puts the customer at the center of all they do – whether it’s with regard to interactions with the customer in front of you or it’s another customer that needs help somewhere else. You  don’t push off customer issues because it’s “not my customer” or “it’s not my job” or “it’s not my issue.” Delivering a great customer experience flows through your DNA. Always.

That dilemma alone drove me to write my book, Built to Win. Helping others to understand what it means to be customer-centric and how to build a customer-centric organization is at the heart of my motivation. Given that, let’s look at the two terms in more detail, to be really clear on what I’m talking about here.

Are You Customer-Focused?

Customer focus means that a brand focuses on the customer. Of course, all brands will say they focus on the customer and may think that they really do. They’ll listen to the customer (surveys, surveys, surveys), but they don’t really take the time to understand their customers. And importantly, there’s no real differentiation of who customers are –  because everyone is actually being treated equally. As a customer.

Doesn’t that just sound homogeneous and lacking impact? They’re approaching customers tactically and reactively, waiting for customers to tell them what they want and delivering at today’s wants. It’s short-term and transactional and they’re only asking these kinds of questions: What does she want? How can we be nice to her? What can we do to get her to buy from us or to come back again? Customer focus happens at the frontline, person to person/face to face. Customer focus is self-serving in that it is used to achieve business goals, not customer goals.


Customer-centric is much deeper than that. In its most basic sense, it means to put the customer at the center of all the business does. (Important point: It does not mean that you will always say “Yes” to everything the customer asks for, nor does it mean that the customer is always right.) And that really means that you take the time to be proactive; understand your customers, their needs, and problems to solve; and make no decisions without thinking of the customer and the impact that those decisions will have on her. To define a customer-centric organization, I like to say:

No discussions, no decisions, no designs without bringing in the customer and her voice (that’s the understanding piece), without asking how it will impact the customer, how it will make her feel, what problems it will help her to solve, what value it will create and deliver for her.

It’s a way of doing business – a way of being. It’s strategic. It’s proactive. It’s co-creation. It’s long-term. It’s relationships. It’s omnichannel. It’s enterprise-wide; it’s not simply individual heroic efforts. And it’s a culture that is deliberately designed to be this way. Customer-centricity flows through the veins of the organization and into everything every employee does – not just if or when a customer is in front of her.

Here’s another way of looking at it. Customer-centricity is an approach to doing business in which the business:

  • Creates a positive experience and delivers value for the customer by understanding the customer, her needs, pain points, problems to solve, and jobs to be done – and by understanding that not all customers are created equal
  • Has the tools and technology in place to not only capture the customer voice but also to analyze it and share insights throughout the organization
  • Places the customer at the center of its philosophy, operations, and ideas (Investopedia)
  • Understands that customers are the only reason they exist

There’s another term that you have probably heard, one that gets over-used a lot because it sounds so glamorous: customer-obsessed.

Jeff Bezos is probably the first leader to be credited with talking about customer obsession. He once said: If you’re truly obsessed about your customers, it will cover a lot of your other mistakes.

What exactly does that mean?

Well, I’m going to have to lean on Mr. Bezos for this one. If I look at the myriad of definitions online, it seems that it’s a “hyper-focus” or an “intense focus” on customers. Oh my.

Customer Obsession is one of Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles. Based on that, it means: Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

Not helpful, is it?

Honestly, it sounds a bit like being customer-centric. Here are a few other things he’s said that will only add to that thought.

  • “We’re not competitor obsessed; we’re customer obsessed. We start with what the customer needs and we work backwards.”
  • “The most important single thing is to focus obsessively on the customer. Our goal is to be earth’s most customer-centric company.”
  • “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 one vitality.”

Here’s my assessment. Customer-obsession sounds sexy. Not practical, just sexy. It’s a fancy way to say that the business is customer-centric. Obsession is a hard thing to achieve. It’s a preoccupation. It seems a bit dangerous.


I think the differences in these terms are clear… all you have to do is look at the suffix of the word. “-focus” means pay attention to. “-centric” refers to something is at the center. And “-obsessed” means there’s a preoccupation.

Yes, the good news is that all three are about the customer. But culture and operations differ from one to the other, for sure. Of the three, customer-centric is where you want to be.

Yes, you can pay attention to customers, but that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily design and deliver with the customer in mind; the customer voice isn’t necessarily flowing through your company’s DNA.

And, yes, you can be preoccupied with customers, but that seems a bit extreme. You’ve got to run the business with the customer in mind and at heart; you can’t let the customer run the business.

Customer-centric, when viewed next to the other two terms, conveys a sense of balance. The other two terms are opposites or on opposite ends of the focus spectrum.

The customer is why we’re here. If we take good care of them, they’ll give us good reason to come back. ~ Jenny McKenzie


Annette Franz is an internationally recognized customer experience thought leader, coach, speaker, and author. In 2019, she published her first book, Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the “Customer” in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business); it’s available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. In 2022, she published her second book, Built to Win: Designing a Customer-Centric Culture That Drives Value for Your Business (Advantage|ForbesBooks), which is available to purchase on Amazon, Books A Million!, Target, Barnes & Noble, and thousands of other outlets around the world! Sign up for our newsletter for updates, insights, and other great content that you can use to up your EX and CX game.

Image courtesy of Jacqueline Munguía on Unsplash.