What commonality between business building customer centric capability and Ironman triathlon?


Competing in and completing an Ironman triathlon is to accomplish one of the greatest challenges of the human body and mind. The Ironman is a true test of oneself. The event requires one to do battle and to win over self doubt and fatigue. It requires one to make steady progress in a non-stop journey that may take up to 17hours to complete. It requires one to swim 3.8km in the ocean (a foreign environment), cycle 180km and then run 42.2km. During the event one experiences euphoric moments – boundless energy, enthusiasm and positivity as well as moments of deep despair, exhaustion and sometimes desperation. It brings out a raw fear as one tests oneself. It also brings out the best and the worst of all who seek the challenge and aspire to hear the words – ‘you are an Ironman!’ It makes us realize, what we as mere mortals, can achieve with focus, commitment and dedication

To compete in an Ironman requires one to be fit. Fit is not necessarily defined by being thin or lean. Fit is not defined by ‘how fit we say we are!’ – fit is defined by being capable and ready. To be capable and ready to compete in the disciplines of triathlon requires a blend of different sporting capabilities, stamina and good cardiovascular capability. Importantly, the capability and readiness is developed through a sustained and consistent adherence to a structured programme that builds capacity to successfully complete the swimming, cycling and running legs of the race.

One could exercise in an unstructured way for many hours per week and fail to achieve the state of readiness needed on the day. One could exercise and continue to eat too many calories and not achieve the optimum weight and body fat percentage. On the day one could pay too little attention to nutritional planning and suffer both dehydration and depleted energy stores.

Think of these principles in the context of an organization looking for a competitive advantage through the principles of customer management.  In the same way that the goal of an Ironman training programme is to enable the athlete to perform well in all disciplines on the day – the goal of a customer management programme is to deliver a consistent customer experience across all customer touchpoints. This requires an organization that views the delivery of a proactively designed customer experience as the outcome of adherence to a customer programme that places the customer at the very core of the business, with all functional areas working to support one another in delivering against the stated objective. It requires an organization not only to ‘think’ differently but to ‘do’ differently – an organization that knows and understands what they need to do, when they will do it by and what will be achieved by doing what they need to do.

There are but a handful of triathletes who naturally excel across the 3 disciplines. Equally so, there are only a handful of organizations that display top decile capability in strategy and leadership, in understanding customers, in people and organizational structure and capability, in channel mix, in customer information, in delivering a consistent experience, in enhancing customer value, in customer propositions, in competitive understanding, in recognizing leaders in key differentiating capability areas, in regulatory compliance, governance and risk.  Capabilities in these areas enable a business to be highly capable in customer Retention, E fficiency, Acquisition and Penetration, i.e. the 4 key drivers of customer value management.

Very often in triathlon the first swimmers out of the water enjoy their brief moment of glory at the front of the race and then get swallowed up by the field. It is those athletes with a fairly balanced mix of swim, bike and run skills that normally turn in the best performance.  An extraordinary strength/capability in any one of the disciplines is very seldom able to make up for weaknesses in the other disciplines.

This is equally applicable to the business world. To become customer centric requires a holistic and broad base of capability that spans all functional areas.

Overcoming a weakness in a sporting discipline is sometimes as simple as strengthening the muscles in that weakest discipline – in swimming it may be lats, traps and triceps, in cycling it may be quads, in running it may be hamstrings, quads and calves. The one area used in all three disciplines is the ‘core’ – all of the bodies most powerful movements originate from the core. Likewise in business – it’s the leadership and the clarity of strategy that is the core – it’s the existence, or the creation, of a burning platform to drive change, it’s clarity of vision, clarity of where we’re going, it’s making sure that the capacity to achieve exists, making sure that the right skills are in place and focused on the right activities and it’s the achievement of identified milestones that indicate that progress is being made.

Whether a business is developing capacity in the area of customer centricity or the individual is working towards participating in the Ironman, a tried and tested approach is required for success. For the business, a customer management framework enables an understanding of current capability, a benchmark score against a selected industry or geographical area and a blueprint that prioritises activities in order to build the end-to-end capability.  For the individual it’s understanding the level of fitness and capability at the start of the journey, it’s setting the personal time objectives for completion of each of the disciplines and it’s the training programme that needs to be adhered to down to the minutest of detail in order to be ready on the day. But above all this, it’s the personal commitment of the leadership in the case of a business and in the case of the individual that brings this to reality. It’s all about executing the plan that’s been created within the frame that provides the confidence to live the future.

Whether it’s the announcement – ‘you are an Ironman’ made when the athlete crosses the finishing line or it’s the sustained business performance and recognition of the unique and differentiated experience being offered by the business – it’s music to our ears.

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4 Responses

  1. Very well written post, I like the way you put it into perspective. I look forward to reading more of you great content.. Thanks!

  2. Doug,

    I have enjoyed this post, it is a great metaphor..

    I cannot resist to add that both the athlete and the companies needs a good team that support them to perfom and evolve. (coachs, doctors, sports authorities, sponsors, event competitors…).
    In the case of the athlete the goal for them is clear, lively and emotionally active every day but I wonder how clear, lively and emotionally engaged are customer centricity goals for the company? One day (the announcement day, one month (the month of customer centricity project), every day as a way to do business..?

    What do you think?

    Greetings from Argentina.

    Jorge Ronchese

  3. Jorge – very true observations and comment. The challenge we find in many organisations is one of merely paying ‘lip service’ to the real execution of customer centricity. Far too many executives ‘speak the speak’ rather than ‘walk the talk’ – they talk about customer centricity – very often you’ll find reference to it together with various statements alluding to the principles in the financial statements – the reality is that the organisation is not sufficiently well ‘joined up’ to deliver against a customer centric mindset. As you’ve highlighted, if an organisation is going to be customer centric they must have employees who are fully engaged with the objective, be absolutely clear how they are contributing to the objective and be totally committed to delivering their particular part of what will lead to a unique customer experience. Everybody needs to understand their ‘purpose’ and live the organisational values. This requires compelling leadership. Sadly, in many organisations, customer centricity is viewed as a series of initiatives rather than the ecosystem or the ‘organisational engine.’ As you say, this translates into ludicrous campaigns such as ‘the month of the customer!’ – well, what about the other 11 months? Ridiculous isn’t it?

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