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How to create a customer-centric culture - what the experts say

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We pool advice from some of the leading figures in customer experience management, identifying the commonalities from their books and lessons, to provide a summary of the most important steps on the journey to a customer-centric culture. 

27th Aug 2021
Managing editor MyCustomer.com
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How do you foster a customer-centric culture that permeates, inspires and empowers the entire organisation, top to bottom? How do you ensure that your staff live the brand and its values? How do you create a culture that becomes part of the branded customer experience? 

It goes without saying that it is a complex process, and entire books have been written about the subject. But in this article, we pull together advice from some of the leading figures in customer experience management, identifying the commonalities from their books and lessons, to provide a concise summary of the most important steps on the journey to a customer-centric culture. 

Define your customer experience mission...

As Jeannie Walters rightly notes: “Without knowing where you are going, how do you know if you’re heading the right way?”

Whether you call it a culture bible, your company values or your CX mission statement, you need something to guide your intentions, actions and behaviours. 

The late ‘king of customer service’ Tony Hsieh pioneered the culture book at Zappos, for instance. A tangible, ongoing, curated manual that outlines a company’s values, its story and its commitment to creating a positive company culture.  

Cofounder & CEO of Perkbox, Saurav Chopra explains: “The aim of a culture book is to provide a glimpse of a company’s culture as it grows. It’s a way of preserving and reminding employees about it, whilst onboarding new ones and exciting them about the “culture experience” they’re about to encounter.”

Read more about how to create a culture bible here.

...and then communicate it!

“It’s just as important to your culture to communicate about this mission in an ongoing way,” says Walters. “It’s not enough to say it – how is your brand living it?”

“You cannot over-communicate when it comes to demonstrating the desired culture in an organisation,” CX trainer and speaker Ian Golding has noted.”If a continuous stream of messages is not translating its way across all floors, corridors, smartphones, tablets and PCs, then it is unlikely that the intent to become customer-focused will become a reality. There is no right or wrong way to communicate – it just needs to be consistent, engaging and to a degree fun.”

There is no right or wrong way to communicate – it just needs to be consistent, engaging and to a degree fun.

As an example, he points to the Dubai Islamic Bank, which has every member of staff in the organisation wearing a badge that represents their focus on the customer. 

“The customer-first badge is worn on the left-hand side of their bodies close to their heart,” continues Golding. “It is pretty powerful stuff. This type of ‘internal marketing’ continues with the regular distribution of customer first branded ‘treats’ – from chocolates to games. The purpose is to continually remind everyone of the importance of the customer.”

Educate staff about their role in delivering that mission

Of course, if you want people to behave in a way that truly puts the customer into the centre of everything they do, you need to teach them how. 

“In my opinion, not enough businesses are investing in educating their people into what this means,” says Ian Golding. “Everyone in an organisation should possess a clear understanding of who their customers are and how the purpose of the organisation meets their needs. All employees should understand the customer journey and the role they play in delivering it. A great CX professional should be able to educate and inspire all levels of a business to focus more on the customer.”

Ron Kaufman, speaker and author of Uplifing Service, has written about  the importance of education, as distinct from training. 

“Service training teaches someone how to 'do' something: provide quality in a specific situation. Training, by its nature, is tactical, prescriptive and usually differs between functions and departments,” Kaufman explains. “By contrast, service education teaches fundamental service principles that everyone can apply to their own jobs — regardless of role, function or level within the organisation. With service education, employees learn to think proactively and responsively, and then act in an empowered manner to create value for their customers and colleagues. Service education creates a solid foundation – a shared understanding of the customer and a common language throughout the organisation to talk about customer experience and service improvements.

Hire staff that are a good cultural fit

The recruitment process also forms an important part of efforts to foster and embed a customer-centric culture. As Kaufman notes: “Effective recruitment strategies and tactics attract people who support your organisation's vision, and keep out those who may be technically qualified but not aligned with the service spirit and purpose of the organisation.”

Hiring for cultural fit is something that has occasionally attracted negative press, but Jo Geraghty of the Culture Consultancy, believes that is because there has been a fair amount of misunderstanding about what cultural fit actually means. 

“Hiring for cultural fit does not mean taking on a bunch of clones who will all march to the same drum. That way only leads to groupthink and stagnation,” she explains. “Rather, hiring for cultural fit requires companies to bring people on board whose ideas and outlook not only reflect those of the organisational culture but will also bring something to the party to enhance it.

“In fact, hiring for cultural fit sits well alongside the current business move towards diversity and inclusion. Bringing on board a diverse range of people who can bring their own knowledge, background and experience to enhance and further the customer experience culture of the organisation is key to the growth of a strong and successful business.”

Some of the key actions in hiring for a customer-centric culture include: reframing job descriptions away from task-oriented descriptions towards attitudes and expectations; advertising your culture, both in the job ad but also in the way that the company interacts with candidates; picking people not qualifications; and ensuring that the interview process includes an element of open discussion to allow the candidate to showcase their soft skills. 

Finally, the onboarding process is also hugely important, as it holds the key to helping people to start engaging with the culture as quickly as possible. 

“Introduce your new people to the organisation and give them time to get to know their new colleagues, devise a programme which helps them to build a holistic view of the business and appoint a mentor who themselves demonstrates customer-centric skills,” advises Geraghty. “Quite simply, what you do in the first few days will make a measurable difference to the long term delivery of great customer experiences. And don’t forget, whilst you are showcasing your culture to your new hires, it’s a great opportunity to reinforce the message across your existing team.”

Customer service trainer and author Micah Solomon adds: “Let employees and potential employees know, from the first moment they come in contact with your organisation, what matters most in the culture you are striving to create.

“This is essential, and is often overlooked: recruiting, hiring  and onboarding so often get bogged down in forms to fill out and other mundane details that the new or potential employee never hears - or at least doesn’t hear loud and clear - what the company they’re joining, or are on the brink of joining, is all about.”

Involve customers as much as possible

Jeannie Walters notes that customer-centric cultures make it a point to include the customer into their regular work cadences, either directly or indirectly. 

“It’s sort of amazing to think about how many organisational leaders don’t interact with customers. They may have never even met one! In workshops, I start with a “recent customer profile” exercise to highlight how easy it is to get far away from actual customers. Many leaders look at me sheepishly and say things like, “does it have to be an external customer?” Or, “what if the most recent is a few years ago?” I’m not here to shame anyone… I get it. It’s easy to be tasked with responsibilities like balancing budgets and innovating around products and simply never interact with customers directly.”

For this reason, she advises that organisations bring customers into meetings and events. As an example, she highlights how The Cancer Treatment Centers of America bring a patient into their board meetings to share their personal stories, while other organisations start their meetings with customer quotes - alternating between those that praise them and those that critique them. 

Leaders have an important role to play

While culture is about employees and their behaviours, CEOs and company leaders have an important role to play in embedding a customer-centric culture. 

“The power of senior leadership to set the vision, reward success, remove roadblocks and role model correct behaviour cannot be delegated to others,” says Ron Kaufman. “In fact, active and visible involvement by senior leaders in the organisation is essential to ensure the strategic building of a service culture is not perceived as tactical efforts at service improvement ('a service quality thing'), frontline skills upgrading ('customer service training'), enhancing customer experience ('another buzzword from the marketing department'), or even 'a culture thing' from human resources.

“Building an uplifting service culture requires everyone to take responsibility, understand and play their roles with clarity and vigour – from the top down, and from the bottom up!”

Jeannie Walters agrees that leaders from throughout the organisation must be leading and supporting efforts around customer experience and walking the talk themselves. 

Building an uplifting service culture requires everyone to take responsibility, understand and play their roles with clarity and vigour – from the top down, and from the bottom up!

“This means prioritising resources, reporting on customer experience metrics in meaningful ways, and creating standards to ensure governance around what’s most important. Your customer experience governance culture does depend on your culture, priorities, and plans. But there are definite best practices around creating a governance structure (sometimes referred to as a framework) that leads to delivering on the promises of customer experience.

“Good governance means defining standards, including cross-functional leadership, and frequently checking in on how to prioritise improvements for customers AND employees. Without these well-articulated and defined standards, how do you know if you’re prioritising the right things? These standards help secure funding, assign accountabilities, and more.”

Recognition and rewards

“Recognition and rewards motivate your team to celebrate service improvements,” says Kaufman. “Incentives, acknowledgement, prizes, promotions and praise all focus attention and encourage greater service results.”

Lynn Hunsaker, chief customer officer at ClearAction Continuum, agrees that what gets rewarded gets done - whether the rewards are tangible or intrinsic.

“Interestingly, intrinsic rewards have proven to be more powerful in adjusting a group’s ways of thinking and doing,” she notes. “Risk tolerance and penalties also determine the degree to which customer-centricity takes root. Above all, monitor cause-and-effect and also perceptions of fairness in terms of logic and equity; these elements are pivotal to success.

“At Enterprise Rent-a-Car, customer sentiment is measured at the rental office level. Only employees in offices that score at or above the overall company average are eligible for promotion, raises or bonuses. At EMC, achieving the target for their leading indicator of customer sentiment, system availability, is a go/no-go determinant of the bonus for the entire company.”

Culture should be the final step in CX transformation - not the first

Interestingly, while it may seem that culture is the ideal place to start when it comes to transforming your customer experience, it should in fact be the final step in the transformation process, according to Heart of the Customer’s Jim Tincher. 

“You can’t change culture until you create better behaviours. So start there,” he explains. “Develop your capabilities to focus on customers, help employees understand what is going wrong today, and show them how they can better serve customers.”

He continues: “Too many CX programmes wither because they fall into the trap of trying to “boil the ocean.” When you’re spread that thin, you’re not going to be able to show continual impact. So be strategic and disciplined in your efforts. Focus first on building an improved approach to serving customers. Then drive lasting change effectively, propelled by your newfound ability to show how customer-centricity improves business outcomes.

“Believe me, I get it. When first starting out, training on what customers want can seem like a great way to make an immediate impact. But even if it does manage to do that, the impact will be short-lived. In the long run, it’s far more effective to first discover where customer and business success intersect to prove out your case. Begin with Kotter’s first seven steps to build your capabilities. Only then should you move ahead with building your training and other culture change efforts.”

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