Organizations have been trying to adopt a customer-centric culture for nearly 20 years now. But the CMO Council researched and reported that “only 14 percent of marketers say that customer-centricity is an official mark of their companies, and only 11 percent believe their customers would agree with that characterization.”
Why do so many organizations struggle to get customer-centricity right? The volume, velocity, and variety of customer data that now exists swamp many organizations. Some organizations don’t have the systems and technology to segment and profile customers. Others lack the processes and operational abilities to target them with personalized communications and experiences.
But the most common, and perhaps the greatest, hindrance to customer-centricity is the lack of customer-centric company culture. At most organizations, the culture remains product-focused or sales-driven, or customer-centricity is considered a priority only for certain functions such as marketing. To successfully implement a customer-centric strategy and operating structure, a company must have a culture that aligns with them — and leaders who intentionally cultivate the necessary mindset and values in its employees.
To build a customer-centric culture, business leaders should take these six actions:
Operationalize customer empathy. Empathy is one of those buzzwords that sound really good, but very few organizations actually understand what it means much fewer practices. Essentially, customer empathy is the capability to identify a customer’s emotional needs, understand the reasons behind that need, and respond to it constructively and appropriately. And it’s pretty rare. According to PwC, only 38% of U.S. consumers say the employees they converse with understand their needs.
To inculcate empathy as a universal value, one that informs everything their company does, leaders must do more than giving it lip service. Slack, the business communication software company engages empathy. Employees spend a lot of time reading customer messages and observing customers try to apprehend what they want and need. Consumer support specialists are encouraged to research the people they’re helping and create mini personas for them to better understand how the consumers are using Slack. The company screens to support people who know how to express empathy through the written word, and the company doesn’t allow them to cut and paste canned responses. And for partner companies who build apps on the Slack platform, the company promotes nine best practices to help them practice empathy, including “outline your use cases” and “storyboard each interaction.”
Hire for customer orientation. From the very first interaction with prospective candidates, organizations should make thinking about consumers and their needs a clear priority. At Hootsuite, the social media management platform, marketing and human resources departments collaborate to do this.
During the interview process, hiring managers are required to ask every candidate, regardless of role, a question to determine their customer orientation. This practice not only evaluates candidates and ensures that every new employee is aligned to customer-centric thinking, but also sends a clear message to everyone — recruits and hiring managers alike — about the importance of customer experience at the company.
Democratize customer insights. For every employee to adopt a customer-centric mindset, every employee must understand the company’s customers. Adobe Systems has extended access to customer insights for all employees. It doesn’t store up customer understanding in the sales and marketing groups and then expects other departments to focus entirely on their functions.
The organization created a new department, a combined team of customer and employee experience, to facilitate better customer understanding. It set up listening stations where employees can go, either online or in an Adobe office, to listen to customer calls. And at every all-employee meeting, leaders give an update on the organization’s customer experience delivery.
Facilitate direct interaction with customers. Organizations need to develop ways for employees to interact with customers directly, even in “back office” functions. After all, every employee impacts the customer experience in one way or the other, even if indirectly, so every employee can benefit from interacting with customers to better understand them and learn about their successes as well as challenges.
Airbnb considers hosts, the people who rent out their homes/rooms, to be customers, so it facilitates employee-host interactions by requiring employees to stay in Airbnb rentals whenever they travel for business. The organization also asks employees to let hosts stay with them when they attend meetings at the Airbnb offices. What’s more, employees participate in an annual event alongside hosts so that together they discuss learnings from the past year’s experience and plans for the next.
Most organizations’ business models probably don’t allow for direct employee-customer interaction as organically as Airbnb’s does, but leaders can still facilitate communication by letting employees observe focus group, sales, and support calls, customer visits and ride-along, and co-creation labs, and participate in customer events like advisory board meetings and industry conferences.
Link employee culture to customer outcomes. The saying “You can’t manage what you don’t measure” applies to customer-centricity, too. Leaders will be motivated and equipped to cultivate a customer-centric culture if they know if and how it will impact the results, so companies should ensure they establish and track the link between culture and customer impact. According to Diane Gherson, head of Human Resource at IBM, employee engagement drives two-thirds of her company’s client experience scores. That proves what Gherson and her team knew instinctively: If employees feel good about IBM, clients do, too.
Temkin Group, a customer experience consulting organization, has developed a model that estimates the impact of customer experience improvements on revenue in different industries. On average, Temkin calculates, a typical $1 billion organization can gain $775 million over three years through the modest of the improvements such as reducing customer wait times or making a transaction easier for the customer.
Tie compensation to the customer. Companies should reinforce a customer-centric culture through their compensation program. Donna Morris at Adobe calls this “giving every employee skin in the game.” She says that for employees to know that a customer-oriented frame of mind and behaviors are expected from them, there has to be “an element of risk” to it.
So Adobe implemented a compensation program roping every employee to the customer. The short-term cash incentive plan reflects the company’s revenue performance as well as customer success measures such as retention. The program not only makes tangible contributions to the customer that every employee makes but also produces organization-wide alignment because everyone is working toward the same goals.
Company leaders are starting to recognize that culture and strategy go hand in hand. Only when customer-centric strategies are supported and advanced by culture will an organization realize its customer-centric vision.