The Outside-In Approach to Customer Service

Is your enterprise resilient or rigid? In this Q&A, HBS professor Ranjay Gulati, an expert on leadership, strategy, and organizational issues in firms, describes how companies can evolve through four levels to become more customer-centric. Plus: book excerpt from Reorganize for Resilience: Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business. Key concepts include:
  • Companies with an outside-in perspective aim to provide solutions for customers. Those with an inside-out orientation, on the other hand, just focus on products, sales, and the organization.
  • Customer-centric companies tracked by Gulati between 2001 and 2007 delivered shareholder returns of 150 percent while the S&P 500 delivered 14 percent.
  • Companies evolve through four levels when they aim to become more customer-centric.
  • To develop an outside-in orientation, it is essential to translate awareness of an issue into action toward solving it.
  • Silos must be bridged, not necessarily busted. Best Buy is an example of a company that developed an outside-in orientation by tackling its own internal silos.
by Sarah Jane Gilbert

Times are tough for many businesses, yet some are holding their own, even thriving. Best Buy, Cisco, Target, Starbucks, and Jones Lang LaSalle come to mind. How do they do it? According to a new book by Harvard Business School's Ranjay Gulati, it is customer-centric firms—those with a so-called outside-in perspective—that are most resilient during turbulent markets.

An outside-in perspective means that companies aim to creatively deliver something of value to customers, rather than focus simply on products and sales. And Gulati's research, including interviews with 500 executives spanning industries and geographies, asserts that outside-in success is not confined to any one sector.

"I see the move toward customer-centricity as a journey," explains Gulati. "It doesn't happen overnight. Based on my observation of companies for almost a decade, I map out four levels that exemplify distinct stages through which companies may evolve on this journey."

In our e-mail Q&A, we asked Gulati to describe what managers can learn from his new book, Reorganize for Resilience: Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business (Harvard Business Press). Gulati, whose research explores leadership and strategic challenges for building high growth organizations in turbulent markets, is the Jaime and Josefina Chua Tiampo Professor at Harvard Business School. A book excerpt follows.

Sarah Jane Gilbert: Your book focuses on how companies can profit, regardless of market conditions, by immersing themselves in the lives of their customers. Please describe the business model of looking "outside-in" versus "inside-out."

Ranjay Gulati: The difference between the outside-in and inside-out perspectives is central to the book's arguments. When I began this research, I naively assumed that all firms must indeed have an outside-in orientation whereby they put their customers first in all their decisions and actions. After all, that is what business is about. Much to my surprise, I found that this was the exception rather than the rule for most businesses.

“As I delved deeper into companies seeking to become more customer-centric, the biggest gap I discovered was the one between awareness and action.”

Most companies with an inside-out perspective become attached to what they produce and sell and to their own organizations. In contrast, the outside-in perspective starts with the marketplace and delves deeply into the problems and questions customers are facing in their lives. It then looks for creative ways to combine its own capabilities with those of its suppliers and partners to address some of those problems. The goal is to bring value to customers in ways that are beneficial for them while also creating additional value for the company itself.

Q: Could you give an example?

A: Sure, bagged salad. Bagged salad would not have risen to what is now, a $2.5-billion-a-year industry, without a revolutionary shift to outside-in thinking that allowed companies such as Fresh Express to realize that busy consumers wanted companies to make the whole salad for them rather than simply continue to tweak the packaging of their lettuce.

It's worth noting that the companies and business units in my study were tracked between 2001 and 2007. I picked these firms for no other reason than their genuine commitment and actions toward embracing an outside-in perspective. In that period these companies have delivered shareholder returns of 150 percent while the S&P 500 has delivered 14 percent. They've also grown their sales 134 percent while the S&P 500 has grown just 53 percent. Clearly, these firms have found something that allows them to be resilient in both good times and bad.

If you look at this data for the period 1999 to 2007, the results are even more striking: These companies delivered shareholder returns of over 130 percent while the S&P delivered 0.6 percent. They grew their sales 233 percent while the S&P 500 has grown just 10 percent.

Q: What are some of the institutional barriers to developing an outside-in orientation?

A: Developing an outside-in orientation is difficult to achieve because it requires both insight and action. Gaining real insights into customers' needs demands more of companies than those arising from typical market research. The questions you ask of customers must be more profound and open-ended, with an intent not only to discover how your customers engage with your products or services but also to understand some of the broader parameters of the constraints they are facing in their own lives.

Collating and making sense of all that you learn about your customers is just the starting point. From here, firms have to make a creative leap to discover the unique combination of products and services that may address those needs. No customer gave Steve Jobs and Apple the design for the iPhone or the iPad. Rather, they came about from intense listening combined with a creative leap within their and their partners' potential to tackle customers' perceived needs. And in some instances, firms may be ahead of those needs and driving them.

As I delved deeper into companies seeking to become more customer-centric, the biggest gap I discovered was the one between awareness and action. Much to my surprise, even if an organization and its employees became consummate listeners and tried to make sense of what they were hearing, they were often immobilized to do much with their insights. Why? The more I researched, the more it became apparent that the problem had to do with internal silos. Most organizations today are still typically built around product and geography, and do not have a clear line of sight to the customer. These silos not only create proverbial blind spots for firms but also impede coordinated action toward addressing what may be identified as central for their customers.

As I show in my book, you don't always have to bust silos; in most instances, you sometimes have to simply find ways to bridge them. Ultimate success cannot come without a supple organization that has fluid internal and external boundaries.

Q: What is an example of a company that has been on this journey?

A: Best Buy, the largest dedicated consumer electronics retailer in the United States, provides a good example of a company that developed an outside-in orientation by tackling its own internal silos. Best Buy came to understand that true customer centricity cannot be achieved by simply listening to customers about their experiences with Best Buy; the company has to commit to owning the customers' problems and working creatively to solve them.

Faced with increased price competition from retailers like Walmart as well as online retailers like Amazon, last decade Best Buy began with a comprehensive segmentation of its customers. As part of this initiative, the company realized that although 55 percent of its customers were women, most of these women did not enjoy their shopping experience at Best Buy. This was a store designed by guys for guys! Not only did the store layout not conform to the buying behavior of many women, but also the store support staff were not always oriented to providing help in ways women wanted to be helped. For example, while women were interested in learning about the functionality and interoperability of various pieces of electronics, they would instead be bombarded with technical specifications. Furthermore, most women sought installation help from store staff but were turned away.

Best Buy responded by reengineering the design of its stores and training some of its staff to be generalists who could help women traverse their stores. In addition, Best Buy acquired Geek Squad to broaden its footprint into installation of equipment. The company applied the same concerted effort toward serving other valuable customer segments it had discovered, including small business owners and music aficionados.

All this helps explain why Best Buy is still around while its main competitor Circuit City is in its grave. But this misses an important piece of the story that is documented in Reorganize for Resilience. None of this would have been possible had Best Buy not undertaken, first, a massive internal effort to educate its employees about the benefits of an outside-in perspective (it even launched a "customer- centricity university" for employees) and, second, a monumental effort to mobilize action. From building cross-functional customer segment units to creating additional teams that cut across merchandizing, store operations, and segment owners, senior leadership at Best Buy saw to it that the entire organization embraced an outside-in approach.

Q: How long does this process generally take? And what are the benchmarks of success?

A: I see the move toward customer-centricity as a journey. It doesn't happen overnight. Based on my observation of companies for almost a decade, I map out four levels that exemplify distinct stages through which companies may evolve on this journey. I would like to emphasize that this is not a journey to nirvana where every firm must seek to be at the fourth level, but it does provide a road map of the steps along the way that firms may either traverse or stop at.

Level 1: Companies at level 1 are very product focused and have an "if I build it, they will buy it" mindset. The focus is on technological excellence with some diffuse understanding of customers who may buy the product.

Level 2: Companies at level 2 have a basic understanding of their customers, typically coming from some market research and segmentation studies. Many firms get lulled into complacency at this stage. They start talking about customers and distinct segments and believe that this alone is an indicator that they have now made the shift toward an outside-in perspective. Frequently such firms still remain fundamentally oriented toward pushing products, albeit in a more refined and targeted way. Their market research starts to permeate their sales efforts but does not have much of an impact on their product development and other upstream activities.

Level 3: The move from level 2 to level 3 is a major shift in both mindset and actions. The focus here migrates from selling products toward solving customer problems. In so doing, firms become adept at comprehending what their customers' deep-rooted issues are and look for ways to position themselves to address those issues. In trying to go from insight to action, these firms seek to make their internal silos more permeable while also building bridges across them wherever necessary. They shift their culture so that some of these ideas begin to permeate and shape the behaviors and actions of their employees.

Level 4: At level 4, firms become agnostic about whether they produce all the inputs they provide to their customers and, akin to a general contractor in construction, look for ways to assemble the appropriate pieces that may go into tackling customers' challenges. A level 4 firm is more attached to producing solutions to customers' problems than it is to the products and services it offers. This intellectual, structural, and emotional transition means that the company is no longer concerned whether the inputs it uses to solve customers' problems are its own or assembled through a network of partners.

Q: You've talked primarily about business-to-consumer firms so far. How about businesses that aren't facing their customers over display racks?

A: My study encompasses firms that span industries and geographies, leading me to believe that what I was observing were fundamental shifts that transcended many sectors.

The global real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle [JLL] is one of a number of business-to-business companies I studied that was able to make a successful transition across the levels just discussed. One of JLL's main clients, Bank of America [BofA], told JLL in 2001 that it no longer wanted to deal with each of JLL's business units independently. BofA asked not only for a single point of contact but also wanted JLL to take care of its entire real estate needs worldwide. JLL saw this as an opportunity to develop integrated solutions that would (1) serve other global corporate clients and (2) develop capabilities in terms of both global and local services.

“The role of employees is absolutely critical as companies strive for an outside-in perspective.”

The transformation took several years. The results speak for themselves. Over the next several years, close to 75 of some of the largest firms in the world signed on with JLL for similar services. None of this would have been possible without a concerted effort on the part of management to build up an entire unit of boundary spanners whose primary role was to interface with their clients and make their experience with JLL seamless. As JLL expanded its client base, the company realized the limitations of trying to connect its distinct service silos through such account managers and eventually reconfigured its internal units around customers and markets.

Q: Obviously, this process involves substantial changes in the way companies do business. What can executives and managers do to motivate employees and ease the transition for the business to become more customer-centric?

A: The role of employees is absolutely critical as companies strive for an outside-in perspective. If the organization does not have people who can explore, comprehend, and meet its customers' needs, the pursuit of customer-centricity is doomed from the start. To me, a key distinction for managers to focus on is the one between coordination and cooperation.

Coordination—the ability to work together—involves the alignment of "hard" phenomena: activities, processes, and information. Most companies begin with this and simply assume that mandating shared tasks and information exchange will suffice. It does to a degree but can be severely limiting in how much firms can achieve. At best, they are able to respond in a somewhat coordinated fashion when customers come to them. What they don't get is proactive development of new ideas that can be taken to the market before the market comes to them. To achieve this loftier goal, you need the second half of collaboration, which is cooperation.

Cooperation—the willingness to work together—involves the alignment of "soft" phenomena: goals, attitudes, and behaviors, people-related issues. Most companies focus on coordination among silos and pay insufficient attention to encouraging employees to cooperate. And when they do consider cooperation, they rely too heavily on incentives alone as the panacea. Those who get it right recognize that changing behavior requires a multipronged effort that ultimately shifts the culture of the organization.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm researching how companies can leverage adversity for advantage and come out of a recession stronger. Some of this research is featured in a forthcoming article titled "Roaring Out of Recession" in the March 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review. I am also continuing my research on collaboration within and between firms.

Excerpt From reorganize For Resilience By Ranjay Gulati

Today's customers expect solutions to their consumption problems, and they are utterly agnostic as to where those solutions come from. To meet these customers where they are, companies, in turn, must become less focused on what they themselves produce and more focused on their customers' most pressing needs—even when that carries them well beyond their own borders, even indeed when that means in essence dissolving themselves into broader partnerships. They must ensure that their organizational silos have been reconfigured, leveled, or spanned sufficiently to guarantee an unimpeded line of sight to the customer. Most important, they must also guarantee precisely the reverse: that the line of sight from the customer into the organization is equally unimpeded, and in a final twist that the companies see themselves from the outside, with their customers, so that they can help wherever their customers are, in their hours of greatest need.

The Resilience Toolkit: The five levers

  • Coordination—Alignment of activities, processes, and information across units within an organization
  • Cooperation—Alignment of goals, attitudes, and behaviors across units within an organization
  • Clout—Assignment of power and decision rights to customer-facing individuals as well as those responsible for integration of activities across units within the organization
  • Capabilities—Development of customer-facing generalists along with product specialists
  • Connections—Expand the source of inputs and also complementary offerings beyond internal production units to external strategic partners

Coordination aligns tasks and information around a customer axis but doesn't necessarily lead to a collaborative environment, a hallmark of systemic integration. That requires the lever of cooperation—the alignment of goals. When members of disparate or competing silos cooperate around a common set of goals, they make adjustments more quickly and at lower cost than in organizations in which the needs of the silo come first. Cooperation, in turn, does not solve the inevitable problems associated with the redistribution of power. To make systemic integration work, clout must be in the hands, and the capability to develop new organization-spanning skills must be fostered and strengthened so frustrated managers don't fall back on their own silo-protecting skills.

Last, the capstone of all this work, and the point where the need for resilience is greatest and the greatest resilience is achieved, is connection: shrinking the core and expanding the periphery to join seamlessly with external partners to identify and solve customer problems. The first four levers are the tactics for integration that rebuild an organization around a customer axis. Connection is what finally busts down the silo of the company itself. Only when that is completed to an appropriate degree—at the intellectual level, the enterprise level, and the emotional level—do firms achieve the shape-shifting holy grail of outside-in actions. And, in achieving that, they achieve the responsiveness and nimbleness that enable survival in the roughest of oceans.

About the Author

Sarah Jane Gilbert is a content developer at Baker Library.