From a customer-oriented approach to a human-centric perspective

Just as we got used to talking about customer experience and customer orientation, and acknowledged the importance of employee experience, we are more and more confronted by people, culture and society. Development should be human-centric and it should put people first.

This emphasis is underlined by the uncertain and ever-changing times we, both people and organizations, live. A solution that gave a company competitive advantage yesterday, may be irrelevant to customers or unattractive to employees today. On the other hand, needs of humans never end, so should we expand the horizon from a role to a person?

The sociologist in me says that without understanding the culture and society we operate in, one cannot sustainably succeed. The marketer in me says that buying is only one point in customer’s path and in order to influence it, it’s worth identifying the needs and desires behind the encounter. And above all, the supervisor and colleague in me insists that I remember that I am nothing alone and that if a friend doesn’t get excited about my case, it will not go far.

But what does it mean to be human-centric? What is it in relation to customer orientation? What should be done in practice to be human-centric?


Although human-centricity is a newer concept, it doesn’t change the position of the customer, nor the meaning of customer orientation and it doesn’t detract the importance of the customer experience. If the experience is bland or bad, only few will want to make a purchase, let alone remain as a customer. The assessment of the quality of the experience is always made and owned by the customer, a human-being. As a manager, developer or agent, I can only influence the experience but I can’t control or decide what it is like.

This “man affects man” process would automatically be thought to be human-centric. Even if the encounter takes place digitally, through a space or a product, there is always a person behind the design. Automatic assumptions tend to be weak, and so is this one.

I claim that we all are in our own bubbles most of the time and that the edges of that bubble can be surprisingly strong. We tend to be self-centric or company driven. We want to be customer-oriented, but we want to define the terms by ourselves. The best thing would be that the customer was satisfied with what we have to offer now and bought enough that our goals were met. It would also be nice if our own team didn’t complain but took care of the work according to the strategy and were always inspired to meet customers in a friendly and charming manner.

However, true people-centricity is measured in the times of change and uncertainty, as well as in the culture of the organization.


I claim that being human-centric requires a deep understanding and vision of the customer, to who we are there for and to whom we offer solutions. By depth I mean cultural and social understanding, an understanding of what people’s everyday practices and desires are like, and how the times we live in affect them and what kind of changes we are going through.

It’s a matter of a very holistic view, a strategic analysis of our place in the market and in society. However, for this analysis and understanding to be transformed into action, people-centricity is also about everyday skills and actions in practical work, whatever it may be. These skills are perhaps vague or soft for some, but they are actually quite demanding. As issue- or customer-oriented people, we may not have recognized their importance.

The following list is my suggestion of human-centric skills. It’s neither final nor complete. In the list, the word ‘other’ refers to both the customer and the co-worker, i.e. people in general:

  • The art of changing perspectives: how can I look at situations through different lenses? What would it look like if I didn’t look at it only from my own perspective, but also from the point of view of a representative of another culture? Or our most important customer?
  • Empathy: how well can I put myself in the shoes of another person? How would they act or how would they like this to be done?
  • Curiosity: how can I increase openness and exposure to new things in myself and in others? Even when we are not consciously looking for a solution.
  • Recognition of emotions and emotional agency: how do I feel in different situations and how do those feelings affect my thinking and actions? Is the effect narrowing or expansive? How do I influence others? What kind of emotional atmosphere do we live in in the first place and what kind of feelings are transmitted to others, customers?
  • Experimentation and learning: how do we promote reflection on what could be and how could it be? Is it ok to fail?

These skills become particularly visible in the organization when we observe and explore the ways and styles in which we communicate, collaborate and lead (ourselves, projects, individuals, teams, units). How do we meet each other and our customers? Do we feel appreciation, positive pride, joy? Do we show those feelings? And do we dare to constructively bring it up when faith runs out or something rubs off? Or do we always put a smile on our face and say that nothing feels like anything, except maybe good? Is our focus only on the substance and the numbers? (note: these are needed equally, but not exclusively) In other words, what is our culture like?


The first step in learning human-centric skills is to explore yourself. How aware am I of my own competence in relation to these skills? What kind of lenses am I looking through? What kind of atmosphere do I create?

Alongside self-reflection, these human-centric skills are on a common agenda, being identified and recognized. They are strategically as important as an analysis of the market or economic indicators. What is needed is time to practice and a joint reflection and insight; a safe space and opportunities to wonder, try, succeed, fail and learn.

As a natural part of every action, emotions are involved in this training, whether we want it or not. They should be included in the scope of conscious examination, learning and leadership. Emotions are energy and at their best, they are a force that drives us forward and turns into a competitive advantage. Customer experience is made by emotions, and the energy from the emotion is what drives the organization. In the end, it’s what kind of feeling, such an experience and what kind of atmosphere, such a spirit for doing.

To sum up: people-centricity brings new dimensions to the everyday life of an organization on many different levels. It’s the ability to have a vision in relation to the operating environment and an understanding of people’s needs and desires. On the other hand, it’s the ability to be curious and empathetic and the ability to manage emotions. Human-centricity is analytical and human, it’s the relationship between knowledge and the other person. Impressive actions include both, wise research designs, and everyday encounters and looking into the eyes.

Anne Pallaste is a senior leadership coach, facilitator and an advisor who boldly combines ethnographic research to the development of employee experience, cultural analysis to brand management and above all, an inclusive and humane way of working with the renewal of organizations, management and business. Anne cherishes curiosity and appreciative encounters so that people and organizations will flourish.

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Anne Pallaste