On conceptualizing ‘alignment with customers’

I share with you, the reader, a part of my journey as I am working on one conceptual paper for my PhD related to customers and ecosystems. This article is also on the meaning of words, especially high-mileage words that we frequently take for granted.

Being immersed in the practice of service design, and now in literature anchoring customers as starting points for business, I frequently encounter the commercial imperative of ‘aligning with customers’, or the quasi-theoretic propulsion to understand and align with the customer’s logic – the logic implicating “the interconnectedness of customer activities, customer reasoning and the idiosyncratic patterns of customer behaviour”; “the basis of value-in-use, offerings and, in essence, business success”  (Heinonen & Strandvik, 2015).

In my imagination, ‘aligning with the customer’ sounded quite complex, perhaps as intricate as our human experience can be, and so the concept had to be multi-dimensional and operating at multiple levels. My reasoning was that as individuals, we have our ever-shifting, ‘inner’ mental-emotional and embodied worlds, as well as our ‘outward’ behavioural worlds. We also find ourselves embedded in a dynamic world of people, nature, and things. And so to align with an individual potentially implicates the whole lot, particularly that which is relevant to the individual in a given context.

Complex customer ecosystems

Taking the example of a healthcare service, the customer context may involve a wide array of actors consequential to the health service: professional caregivers, other coordinating actors and the systems supporting the service journey; the patient’s close ones, a rehabilitation facility, a nutritionist, in addition to various collectives that the patient participates in and which may significantly interact with the health service process. We can call this configuration the patient or ‘customer ecosystem’, a term spearheaded by our colleagues at Hanken (Customer-Dominant Logic, Heinonen et al., 2010), and which is very helpful for understanding how a customer actually derives value out of an offering.

But aligning with the customer is not only about taking stock of the actors influencing the customer’s world (i.e. the customer ecosystem), it also means aligning with the all-encompassing ‘customer logic’ which unfolds within that ecosystem of actors. This includes aligning with the institutional backdrop underlying the customer experience (e.g. culture, norms, values, and roles), the customer’s resources and capabilities, her expectations and desires, activities, practices, etc.

As I envisioned the customer logic to be embedded in the customer ecosystem, my first challenge was to find a way to research and organize the various dimensions of this logic, while situating it in the appropriate locus, and from the customer’s point of view. The second challenge was to tie the customer logic into the focal service system; in other words, to connect ‘aligning with the customer’ from the micro (customer) level to the service provider and wider levels (meso and macro).

I hope to further develop my alignment framework and share it soon enough! It should represent the multi-dimensionality of alignment with customers and capture some facilitators of alignment, helping to expand one’s thinking about the complex inter-dependence of actors and services. For now, I continue this article with a fundamental question I have yet to fully resolve. The question pertains to the alignment ‘mechanism’ itself – i.e. what does ‘alignment’ actually mean?

What does alignment mean?

As a starting point, here are some definitions and synonyms for alignment: to bring into cooperation or agreement with (politics); arrangement in a straight line or the proper positioning or state of adjustment of parts in relation to each other; congruence, coextension, adjustment, alliance.

Alignment has been used in diverse literature. One example is organizational strategic alignment which looks at the fit between external market conditions, and an organization’s internal resources and functional units (Goepp & Avila, 2015). Another example is Carl Rogers’s self-congruency theory in psychology which describes the alignment between a person’s ideal self and their actual experience. The latter is also adapted to marketing as self-congruity theory (Sirgy, 2018) describing the comparison between a consumer’s brand perceptions with their social ideals and self-concept; this has been found to be a useful predictor of consumer attitudes and purchase intention (e.g. Aaker, 1999).

As it appears, even though the concept is quite general, alignment has been useful in describing a wide range of strategic, perceptive, and cognitive ‘matching or fitting’. This may exist between a customer and a brand, between a company and its market, between a company’s internal or external parts (e.g. inter-functional units; networks), or even alignment within one’s own experience (ideal vs. actual self).

Attunement, a complementary concept

To add further nuance, the phenomologist’s concept of ‘attunement’ was suggested to me during a presentation of my topic, and indeed I have found it quite insightful. German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) referred to phenomenological attunement (Befindlichkeit) as a fundamental way of being-in-the-world that filters any experience by ‘moods’ – all human experience, thinking included, is attuned by moods (from DeLancey’s (2014) analysis). In other words, “certain moods or emotions shape what matters to a human being, and as a result shape the very way that the world is revealed.” (DeLancey, 2014). Counter to a homo-rationalis view, this suggests that human experience is always affective, never simply representational – what is experienced somehow always matters to us, thanks to moods.

Phenomenological attunement was applied by Ashworth et al. (1992) to the context of healthcare participation. They expanded on dynamics for the attunement of health professionals and patients to one other, favourable for patient participation. Specifically, they argue for: both parties sharing in a mutual stock of knowledge – a sort of information symmetry and sense-making mechanism; both attuning emotionally and motivationally to the other’s concern which “entails awareness of, and empathy for, the other’s personal investments” in the situation (p. 1434); attaining a state where each party takes for granted that one’s contribution will be received as worthy of consideration by the other, regardless of agreement or disagreement; and that one does not feel that their identity is under threat, because of fitting poorly into some role expectations. Talk about an ideal state for inter-relating!

Fisk et al. (2019) nicely capture the essence of this with their call for ‘transformational collaboration’ which “occurs when all participants are able to make contributions at their full human potential… It is the highest form of co-creation” (p. 198). Under such an inclusive or holistic imperative, aligning with customers, or humans really, carries forth an inspirational overtone echoing a call for higher awareness to transform our services for more inclusion, well-being and societal welfare (Fisk et al., 2018).

What I learned from this is that aspiring theoretically and planning strategically to engage a stakeholder and garner participation is not enough. It is vital to be open to considering their psychological processes which, often times, are rooted in their socio-economic and educational background. Proper attunement instils feelings of safety and trust which may produce “taken for granted” feelings that one is a worthy human being. From a phenomenological sense, alignment may thus contribute to an evolving collective paradigm of connectedness and mutualism (Fisk et al., 2019).

Of course, there are other dimensions for alignment such as alignment of values and morals, alignment with respect to worldviews and desired outcomes, alignment of processes, personal preferences and idiosyncrasies, etc.  But to wrap up here, hesitantly, I now have my customer, going about her daily life, forming some value out of a service, through an array of mental-emotional and socially-situated embodied experiences. And to be aligned with my customer, the panopticon of my service has to open up to truly consider her multi-dimensionality; to have it integrated throughout my business so that my mental models, my business logic, my processes and resources are attuned accordingly to what can be described as the customer logic. This attunement should, in theory, and in practice, be conducive to a satisfactory win-together state of affairs.

Thank you for accompanying me thus far and allowing me to share on this journey!

Fares Khalil
Doctoral student


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