Crafting a Customer-Centric Culture: A Conversation With Tatyana Mamut

Published Mar 25, 2019

Creating a customer-centric culture has never been so important. Most companies can agree on this, yet many don’t know how to form the habits that ensure the customer—not the competitor or anyone else—always comes first.  

Tatyana Mamut is on a mission to fix this.

A leader in Silicon Valley for over a decade, Tatyana has created and scaled successful new businesses at Amazon, Salesforce, and IDEO through her obsession over the customer. At Amazon Web Services, she helped deliver a revolutionary new software product by building a team from two to 150 engineers, product designers, and managers. While at Salesforce, she led the vision, design, and strategy for its flagship IoT solution. And as an executive with IDEO, she co-founded and led the Organization Design practice, which enhances organizational structures, teamwork, and culture through the tools of design.

Tatyana currently advises founders and executives on how to develop successful product strategies while creating healthy company cultures that prime them for growth. A key part of this is a focus on the customer.

At the upcoming ProductCraft conference, Tatyana will be leading a session on the seven habits of customer-centric companies. We recently chatted with her to get a sneak peek into her ideas and learn why creating a customer-centric culture has become so essential to success. We hope you’ll join us to see her full talk live on May 9th in San Francisco.


Tell us what you mean by “customer-centricity.” Is this just the new way of saying that the customer is always right?

Customer centricity, or customer obsession, goes much further than “the customer is always right.” It assumes people don’t really know how to anticipate what they want. They’re just generally frustrated or dissatisfied in some way. Their near-term solution for what they think they want, for what they think is possible, is actually very limited.

So the job of a great product manager is to go beyond what customers are saying and get at the underlying issue. They need to develop empathy for customers, as well as an understanding of why they are asking for a particular solution. This will help them design something that’s far better than what their customer is asking for.

Why has it become so important to focus on the customer versus other metrics, such as competitors or even product innovation?

One of the reasons why I think it’s important is because I worked at Amazon and IDEO. Those two places are really incredible drivers of innovation. Both focus on customers and not competitors. In fact, this is extremely explicit at Amazon. Product innovation does not come from looking at the competition. It comes from understanding customers deeply.

So, while working at both Amazon and IDEO, I’ve seen that customer centricity leads to great product experiences, which is why I’m trying to bring that perspective and those habits to others.

I would say that everyone now agrees that customer centricity is important, but the habits in our product teams don’t reflect that. Instead of looking at competitors, I want to encourage product leaders to go out and spend several days, or even several weeks, with their customers just observing them and getting into their lives. I want people to focus on the customer first, then, later on, look at other competitors.

Was there a turning point in your career when you realized how important it is for companies to become customer-centric? How did this obsession with the customer begin?

My thinking transformed when I was working at the Council of Economic Priorities in college. I was studying how the Russian economy was developing and transforming with some of the best economists in the world, and doing a ton of econometric modeling, or what we now call data science. But when the Russian economy collapsed in 1998, it turned out that all of our predictive models were wrong.

I began to ask myself why this happened. The reason, I realized, is that the economy is formed by human beings and cultural systems, not by mathematical systems. You need to understand people in a much deeper way in order to understand what’s happening in the economic machine. This led me toward my Ph.D. in cultural and economic anthropology. I wanted to understand how to model human behavior.

After that, I went into advertising and led brand planning for Leo Burnett in Moscow. I remember how the first thing our clients wanted to do after flying into Russia was observe Russian housewives. They wanted to do laundry with them, go shopping with them, do household tasks with them. They wanted to be on the ground to really understand what was going on in the market.

Then I went to IDEO, where I led global projects and helped build digital platforms. Once again, I tried to get deep into their mindset and the day-to-day experiences of the customer in order to understand who they were. I was able to apply these practices at Salesforce and at Amazon. Now I’m trying to bring that to other great tech companies that are still doing what I did at the Council of Economic Priorities, which is looking at people as numbers.

What is the most common challenge facing your mentee companies?

The number one challenge comes from top leadership. I mostly work with CEOs and founders. Although product managers and product leaders often have a customer-centric view when it comes to building products, they often tell me that CEOs just want to look at top-level metrics. So I try to help leadership understand that only looking at numbers and asking for ROI up front is extremely limiting if they want truly customer-driven innovation. 

How do you accomplish this?

I teach them how to craft their internal culture by making space for the customer. I also show them how to ask questions in a way that will build customer-centric organizations.

There’s a great quote from Jeff Bezos’ that I bring up often. What he says in a public interview is that at the core of Amazon is customer obsession. He distinguishes this from product obsession or competitor obsession or technology obsession or business model obsession. If you think you’re customer obsessed but you’re always asking about competitors or business models or technology, then you’re not customer obsessed. And you can’t be all things — you have to choose one obsession and center your company around that.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I’m most proud of the Human-Centered Design Toolkit and HCD Connect, the community platform that we developed for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This was a project I led while at IDEO. Our goal was to bring the tools of human-centered design to NGOs and social enterprises in the developing world. We initially started the project working with NGOs serving farmers living on less than $2 a day. We spent a lot of time in villages in Ethiopia and Kenya and Cambodia trying to understand the dynamics and needs of the NGOs and the farmers they served.

Based on this research, we created a Human-Centered Design (HCD) Toolkit. It won awards and was successful, but it also led us to an important insight: that it wasn’t the lack of tools that were keeping NGOs from serving the needs of farmers, but the whole ecosystem of how foundations fund new ideas.

So we created HCD Connect, which is a place where NGOs around the world can get together and share tools and resources, as well as a place where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation can give out microgrants. This lets people experiment with new ideas in the developing world, which really transforms the whole ecosystem of how NGOs and social enterprises try out new ideas.

Just a few years ago, Wired magazine interviewed Melinda Gates. One of the questions was what she thinks is the most important innovation changing lives in the developing world. She said human-centered design, and I’m pretty darn proud of that.

We’d like to give a huge thank-you to Tatyana for taking the time to share her thoughts on customer-centric culture with us. We can’t wait for her talk at the ProductCraft Conference on May 9th.