Wharton Lifelong Learning is based on the premise that Wharton alumni prize the educational experience they received as students on campus. Rarely, if ever, have they experienced an educational experience like it since. What they expect from Wharton Lifelong Learning is that same elite-level of experience—through interactions with each other and with Wharton’s prized faculty, online and through social media, and in face-to-face traditional classrooms and interactive sessions.

At a Lifelong Learning session with Professor Peter Fader during MBA Reunion Weekend, attendees got their proverbial money’s worth. The Frances and Pei-Yuan Chia Professor and co-director of the Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative balanced the line between treating the attendees of his “Customer Centricity Essentials” session as students and as peers.

Fader was discussing his research on customer centricity, a business strategy by which companies align products and services with the needs of a select set of customers to maximize their value in the long term. He pointed to five companies—Walmart, Nordstrom, Apple, Starbucks and Costco—and asked the audience to vote on which ones were the most customer centric.

And as it turned out, none of the listed companies are customer centric in Fader’s view. Fader is a scholar whose work of 25 years has become “relevant and interesting” to the greater business world, as he told the audience. Alumni, on the other hand, are professionals who have been leading and doing, who want to frame the predictive models that Fader can create into their real-world managerial situations.

He kidded with the alumni that he was at MBA Reunion weekend to teach customer centricity in a fun way because alumni were “not really here to work.”

Photo credit: Shira Yudkoff.

Yes, Lifelong Learning can be fun. Fader began his conversation about why Nordstrom is not customer centric by asking, “I say Nordstrom, you say … ?” When the audience replied, “Shoes,” the professor exclaimed, “No!” and everyone had a good chuckle. He was looking for a reply about Nordstrom’s no-questions-asked return policy, an example of how Nordstrom treats all its customers “wonderfully well.” Not a good plan in the customer-centric view because not all customers deserve this treatment.

“I claim that that’s inefficient,” Fader said.

But the alumni were there to work, to be challenged, to leave the classroom with the same rush of inspiration that they got as full-time students on campus. They sought new insights that they could carry back to their jobs.

One such insight was about enhanced customer acquisition, retention and development, which, Fader explained, should be based on customer behavior, rather than on traditional demographics. He added that he teaches a whole MBA course on that if the alumni want to “come on back.”

The lecture room erupted in laughter. Who wouldn’t want to return for learning opportunities such as this?

Editor’s note: Prof. Fader is also a contributor to the Wharton Blog Network. Please click through to his two most recent blogs—The Skinny on ‘Fattening up’ Customers” and “Sifting Through the Ashes”—to read his own words about customer centricity.