I have had the opportunity to observe and operate within many corporate cultures. These days, every organization knows they’re supposed to be customer-centric. I hear companies say it all the time, but what does it really take? How do you know
if you really have it?
Corporate cultures are formed over many years. While leaders can be influential in culture development, it cannot be decreed from the CEO. Culture grows from the people within. Among these people you will find elements that foster the customer-centered focus, and those that jeopardize it. I think of these as the friends and the enemies of a customer-centered culture.
All employees play a role in the experiences their organization provide to the customer. Some may have direct contact with customers, and others may be making decisions that ultimately affect the experiences customers have. This may be obvious for front-line staff, but it holds true for developers, mid-level management, executives, as well as those in operations or finance.
Attitudes about their jobs and towards their company can have huge impact on the experiences they craft. Truly customer-centric organizations provide great career experiences for their employees, and that greatness is passed to their customers. This doesn’t necessarily have to do with pay (although it is important). It’s more about being treated with respect, given trusted authority to delivery, clear direction, and support for the decisions they make.
Building a truly responsive customer-centered
culture requires empathy. We must relate to and understand the
motivation and decisions of individual customers. A lack of empathy can lead teams quickly into an “us versus them” stance where the customer becomes a force to be reckoned with rather than the focus of the product.
Strong empathy leads teams to genuinely care about understanding the people who will use the product and advocate for them even when the pressure is on. True empathy is something that cannot be taught, but it can be triggered via exposure. Teams engaged in meeting and talking to customers will be more able to relate to them, to find common ground and embrace differences through understanding.
Measuring a customer experience can be challenging, but it is one of the best ways for an organization to say “we care”. Customer experience doesn’t always have to be touchy-feely. Strategic and tactical approaches are good when they center on the customer. Figure out what customers care about, and then measure it. If the metrics represent perceptions and voices of the customer, and you’ve done the work to ensure these metrics are credible, reliable and accurate, then focus on them incessantly, even drive bonuses by them.
Profits are a good thing. All businesses need to create profits. However, an unyielding focus on profit can force cuts and compromises in areas that have an impact on the customer experience. Truly customer-centric cultures believe the best way to improve profits is to see it as the result of positive customer experiences, rather than something that can be directly engineered.
Focusing on delivering your product or service to your customers in the most effective way for them is the best way to maximize revenue.
Even highly respected and experienced professionals sometimes refer to their customers in unflattering terms. It happens most often when a new concept is greeted with some sort of customer resistance. To the team that worked hard to develop that concept, this is a very threatening place to be. It’s common to hear things like “well, they’re obviously clueless, so we’ll have to dumb it down for them.”
This kind of attitude not only delivers a poor customer experience, but it can degrade the customer-centered culture of an organization, especially if it comes from leadership. In order for the customer to truly be at the center, everyone in an organization needs to feel respect, and voice that respect for the customer.
Been doing this for a while? Think you know your customers really well already? If you’ve been doing customer research and looking at metrics for years, you probably have a really good feel for who your customers are, what they need, and how they go about getting it. That’s a comfortable place to be.
The problem is that your customer base will morph and change, and as the do they will demand that your company change as well. In turn, as your products or services change over time, you will likely attract different individuals. Or if other new products and services become available in the market, how yours are used and by whom may also change. Demographics change as populations shift. People spend money differently as economies shift. Behaviors change as technologies shift. Complacency can damage a customer-centered culture. Continue research and marketing efforts as if you don’t know your customers and you’ll see the changes as they come, giving you the ability to stay relevant and aware of the ever changing needs of your customer.
Enlist the friends of customer-centered culture by being one yourself. Lead your organization through example. Treat your employees well by having empathy and respect for them, as well as for your customers. Do battle with the enemies by focusing on measuring the customer experience, not the profits. Never stop trying to improve. Encourage everyone to meet with and talk to your customers regularly. All these things together will create an environment that puts the customer at the front and center of your business.