Who’s the most Janus-faced?

This recent interview with Apple boss, Tim Cook, in the The Times sheds light on an escalating tension in Silicon Valley that’s relevant to any aspiring customer-centric leader.


If we pause for a moment to digest Tim Cook’s view, we see someone who (to me at least) appears to be working very hard to maintain a customer-centric mindset – because he still sees competitive advantage from doing so:

“I think most companies in the technology industry are almost solely focused on technology. That’s fine. That’s not a criticism, but they’re solely focused on that. Apple has always fused humanity into technology.” The company was all about “providing the user [with products] that would empower them to express their passion or to change the world in some way … We’re fine with being the Lone Ranger there. We think it’s a special place.”

Combining your purpose with your product is nothing new, but doing it with the weight of expectation that Apple generates is no doubt daunting. Apple (like all of the big technology providers today) are sitting on a pedestal waiting to get knocked about.

So it doesn’t surprise me when, later in this article when it explores how easily everyday technology users are now being drawn into dangerous usage behaviour, the interviewer notes:

Cook told me that there “should be” serious concerns about the mental health impact on children in particular of spending too much time with their screens. But he said he was “not hearing” that Apple’s devices themselves were addictive. It’s the apps that other people make for them that he is “deeply worried about”. From there it wasn’t hard to skewer Twitter, Facebook and others without mentioning them by name. The real problem, Cook said, is the corrosive need to check “what the latest post is” or tally “how many likes have I had?”. “We’re in a sort of unique position there, because we don’t measure our success by how much time somebody’s using our product. We don’t want you using our product all the time,” he added. “You need to do other things in your life as well, right? “If you have a model that is based solely on digital advertising, that can lead you down a path where the user isn’t the user any more. The user is the product. The customer is the advertiser and the desire is as many clicks as you can get.” He frowned. “The user is lost in that. Humanity is lost in that.”

Outwith’s reading of this is that Cook’s fighting hard to distance Apple from “non” customer-centricity – the actions and behaviours of organisations that claim to be customer focused but deliver a different reality. In other words, an approach where the primary unit of analysis is not the customer, but some other variable – perhaps advertisers, click efficacy or product usage.

Aspiring customer-centric leaders don’t need to go the whole hog and claim that being customer-centric will save humanity (we can leave that for Tim Cook, up on the pedestal). We find that customer-centricity is best understood when it’s tightly defined: it’s when you focus on designing an end-to-end experience that embraces your products and is driven by the needs and behaviour of the most valuable customers in the market, with the aim to maximise their lifetime value.

But, leaders can learn from this small insight into Silicon Valley: the existential importance of being very clear about what a customer-centric strategy is – what it looks and feels like, both to your customers and internally with your employees – and what it is not. For me, that’s creating an opportunity out of what could otherwise be a crisis – as it is now, for some.