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How to transform into a customer-centric organisation

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3rd Aug 2009
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Lior Arussy explains how firms can transform their cultures - if they’re willing to make tough choices and stick to their principles.

“How can companies with ingrained product-centric business models transform themselves into customer-centric organisations?” Firms throughout various industries routinely pose this question to me due to their assumption that product-centric companies have an ingrained product-centric DNA that would be impossible to change. Many posit that a simpler solution would simply be to establish a brand new company with a customer-centric culture.

People who pose this question generally fall into one of two camps. In the first camp are individuals seeking any excuse to avoid change, preferring to retain the status quo. These individuals prefer familiarity, existing processes and procedures over the new and unknown. The second camp comprises individuals who understand and internalise the necessity to change, but lack the guidelines, strategy and action plan to effectuate such change. While I wish the first camp much luck in their attempt to stop the wheels of time, it is to the second camp that I offer my support and encouragement in their efforts.

I recently finished reading Isadore Sharp’s book, Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy.  After reading this phenomenal book, I want to take this opportunity to recommend it anyone who cares about implementing and maintaining an exceptional customer experience in their organisation. This is a book in which executives dedicate chapters to their employees and mention every general manager in their organisation. After all, how many companies even know the identities of all their general managers?

The lightbulb moment

In his book Sharp describes a critical moment where he decides to develop the greatest hotel chain in the world. He discussed his realisation that many of his existing hotel properties and employees simply did not live up to his vision of hotel greatness. To remedy this challenge, he set about removing underperforming properties and employees. In contrast to other companies that might have retained some properties and positioned them differently, Sharp opted to rid his company of such properties so that there would never be even a hint of compromise in his vision.

The same philosophy guided his approach to the Four Seasons’ employees. Only those employees who could transition and fulfill Sharp’s vision of excellence kept their jobs. The vision of excellence extended not only to the physical properties but to the employees who directly or indirectly would be delivering the Four Seasons experience to customers.

The book describes in painstaking detail the hardships that were required to transition Four Seasons into a world class organisation with a reputation for excellence. Sharp’s story answers in the affirmative the question set out at the beginning of this article: Can an organisation change its product-centric culture and DNA? However, the book does highlight the principle that one can never compromise on standards to reach illustrious goals. As happened with the Four Seasons, organisational transformation requires tough decisions with people and physical assets. The process can be slow and painful, but dedication and unwillingness to compromise will help transform the organisational culture and the overall customer experience.

Where's the passion?

During our many years helping organisations undergo significant cultural transformations, we have observed employees at all levels unable to find or maintain their passion under the new direction or vision of their companies. When this invariably occurs, it is incumbent upon these organisations to let these individuals go so that their misery, contempt or skepticism does not unduly influence other employees.

Letting them go in a respectful manner is the most effective way of allowing them to search for an organisation where their can find their passion and be happy in their professions. It is simply a matter of matching goals and passion, rather than a judgment of capabilities. While an employee may not thrive in one environment, in another he or she may flourish.

Companies can transform their cultures if they’re willing to make the tough choices and stick to their principles. To that end, they will need to clearly define the new standard and the associated criteria for hiring or retaining those individuals that will help get them there. Organisations can never compromise on such criteria for if they do, commoditisation and price pressures will surely follow.

If you believe that your organisation would be better off with the current product-focused culture then you may wish to avoid any real attempt at customer-centric transformation. However, if your customers are demanding change, and the organisational will and dedication is strong, do not hesitate to begin your journey. It’s time to be courageous and take the lead!

More articles by Lior Arussy:

Lior Arussy is the president of Strativity Group and the author of several books. His new book is Excellence Every Day: Make the Daily Choice-Inspire Your Employees and Amaze Your Customers

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