Would you consider me healthy if you knew I ran six miles this morning? My friend Arturo, a player in the finance and risk management industry, blew me away over lunch recently when he told me his pulse is 37. His heart is so strong that it beats just 37 times a minute. (Slow is good!) That's 52 percent slower than the pulse of the average adult male; 34 percent slower than mine.

Now that's fit. I might run six miles, but Arturo runs 10. He rides his bike to work every day, follows a strict diet and consistently measures his heart rate to assess his fitness level. Notice that the difference between my fitness and Arturo's is based on our actions and a number. Although we share the same good-health philosophy, it's the action we take and the metric that make the distinction.

Likewise customer-centricity. The true proof of customer centricity isn't in surveys or how passionate you are about customers. Instead, it's in the actions you take because of your passion and surveys, and the business results your company attains.

The pulse does not lie

Higher One, a rapid-growth higher education financial services startup on the Inc. 500, is a good example of a customer-centric company.

The proof: How we know they're customer centric

  1. Student accounts at Higher One surged 477 percent in three years.
  2. Higher One achieves exponential revenue growth each year.
  3. Higher One has 100 percent retention in an industry where 15 percent attrition is the standard.
  4. Their customers told us so: Long-time advocate Frank Parker, vice president of student services at Sam Houston State University, said Higher One is so quick to respond to client issues that they make other vendors look bad in comparison.

The pudding: How they got there

Higher One is designed around action and accountability -- no offices, a flat hierarchy and empathetic service people skilled in time management. But what gives them the solid proof is their formal voice-of-the-customer "practice" through which they apply listening methods and take action based on results. The company uses the Net Promoter Score -- an industry metric based on the percentage of customers willing to refer -- as a barometer of client commitment and a measure of success for key employees. Casey McGuane, Higher One's senior vice president of client operations, said that, before Net Promoter, they used to talk about "how clients feel" without a tangible way to express it. "But now," he said, "Net Promoter allows us to be on the same page."

They listen and take the pulse. They act. They measure. They get results -- client retention and referrability, and exceptional revenue growth.

Sidebar: Reality check!

I know. Resources are limited, but with a top-down desire to be truly customer centric, you've won half the battle already. To win the other half, take these three steps next quarter to begin dramatically changing your reality.

  1. Forget surveys and other one-way customer conversations. The best way to turn customers against you is to ask questions when you're not willing and able to act on what they say.
  2. Take your pulse -- use a metric. Try Net Promoter, retention or "share of wallet" --something with a direct effect on your P&L to prove that customers value what you're doing, want more and are willing to pay for it.
  3. Get beyond customer service and assess the degree to which your organization can respond to and act on customer insight. Assess what happens when a serious customer issue enters your system.