Becoming indispensable—a company that your customers can’t live without

By Susan Lahey

Published October 1, 2020
Last updated September 21, 2021

James M. Kerr called his newest book Indispensable: How to Build and Lead a Company Customers Can’t Live Without. But he probably should have called it “How to Build and Lead a Company Customers Don’t Want to Live Without.” The big distinction is that there are some companies that provide a service that seems essential, but the way the company operates makes customers yearn for an alternative. For example, if the evidence presented in Netflix’s The Social Dilemma is accurate, Facebook made itself indispensable by hacking into its customers’ neurological wiring and getting people hooked on a brain chemistry cocktail comprising a need for constant attention, tribalism, and outrage. Many customers would drop Facebook in a heartbeat if a more benevolent platform could take its place in terms of connection, fundraising, events, and gathering their friends and family.

Even Amazon, which has proven itself indispensable in terms of providing everything people could need almost instantly, especially during the pandemic, became indispensable through a very positive lazer focus on knowing customers even better than they know themselves. But its famous toxic environment makes many customers feel uneasy about using it. Kerr is a huge believer in building the kind of company customers don’t want to live without. And that starts with leaders who are committed to being decent human beings toward customers, employees, and the community. Bezos was quoted for asking employees, “Are you lazy, or just incompetent?” By contrast, Kerr quotes Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf who said: “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without strategy.”

Many customers would drop Facebook in a heartbeat if a more benevolent platform could take its place in terms of connection, fundraising, events, and gathering their friends and family.

“Of course, you don’t have to disrupt an industry to become an indispensable business,” Kerr wrote in his book. “Instead, you must be driven to excellence in all that you do and to deliver what your customers want. In essence, you want to be on a constant lookout for ways to unlock your customer’s potential…. The key to unlocking that potential in your customers lies with the leadership and culture of your organization. These are the keys needed to differentiate you from your competitors. These are the things that will enable you to be the provider of choice in the hearts and minds of your customers.”

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The decent company

In his book, Kerr lists many examples of companies that failed because their leaders forgot they were in stewardship roles and made it all about themselves: they made excuses; they copped out of their responsibility to others. And he lists companies that made hard choices for the good of the company and it paid off. In a recent article about bringing decency back to business, Kerr urged that leaders need to remember some basic principles including: “It’s not about you,” “stop needing to win so much,” and “use the decency acid test: ask yourself, Did I do what I thought was the right thing to do? Did I do my best?

“Companies are living organisms,” Kerr said in an interview. “They have a heartbeat, and it’s driven by what the leadership team does. So, what excites the leadership team? Maybe it gets excited by the customer; maybe it only gets excited by profits. The leadership team is providing an example.”

"Ask yourself, 'Did I do what I thought was the right thing to do? Did I do my best?'" — James M. Kerr

Looking at the company as a whole

Good leadership, what Kerr calls “right leadership,” is part of several key choices including “right vision” and “right mindset”—without which you can’t make your company indispensable. Before COVID-19, for example, many companies were way behind on digital transformation. Kerr said many companies he interacted with were not making good use of their CRM systems because employees didn’t update them. When asked why, employees explained it took too long and the system was too complicated. This wasn’t a tech problem, Kerr said. It was a mindset problem, because people didn’t have the mindset that meeting customers needs, whatever it took, was the priority. Leadership didn’t take care of leading the right mindset, and possibly they weren’t looking out for employees by providing an intuitive system to help employees meet customers’ needs. And ultimately, customers were at the bottom of the list of priorities in this scenario.

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“You’ve got to get your leadership team right first, then get your vision together, then get people to support it,” he said. “You can’t become indispensable if you can’t articulate what you’re trying to become. And everybody you’re bringing into the company has to understand that and be part of it. You have to make them promises and deliver on those promises…. You’ve got to make sure your culture isn’t cutthroat, help people be their best, make sure the right kinds of things are baked into administration of the company so employees are empowered to get work done the best way they can.”

"You can't become indispensable if you can't articulate what you're trying to become. And everybody you're bringing into the company has to understand that and be part of it." — James M. Kerr

The book, Kerr said, pulls together all the elements he’s encountered over and over in decades of consulting on management, leadership, organizational design. It outlines a process for examining the company, beginning with the idea that the customer is the reason for being and common decency is the foundation. His frameworks, he said, let companies continually evolve using systems and approaches companies can repeat and apply to a lot of different situations. It’s not one idea, one strategy, or one killer product. It’s a way of being as a company.

“Not any one of those things will delight a customer,” he said. “It’s all of them in unison.”