Rethinking your leadership approach:…Be a learning leader to understand your (internal/external) customers


A requirement that forms a major part of any project management environment is the need to evaluate lessons learned before or during your journey. This could be at the inception, throughout the project or, at the tail end. The key is not to ignore lessons as they constitute the ‘light bulb’ that ultimately ensures success.  Lessons apply to every aspect of life. I recall very vividly the words of an opinion leader years ago when he said profoundly, (paraphrased) ‘there is no such thing as failure in life, you either succeed in your endeavour or you learn’! A myriad of mishaps confronts project managers regularly, these range from unexpected changes in client’s request which disrupts overall workflow making it harder to meet deadlines, (consider your building project, you dream at night and give your architect a headache the next day), the reality is that the project manager does not know everything and therefore must strive to learn all he/she can to stay on top of the game.

Leading in projects and everything else presents immense challenges from communication to budgeting, following up on crucial tasks, and making crucial decisions to ‘keep the ship afloat’. It was John F. Kennedy of blessed memory who once said ‘Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other’. Today’s world is characterized by volatility a world where (courtesy: Prof Eddie Obeng) change happens faster than the rate at which we learn.

A thought leader in customer experience Pennington (2016), opines that companies need to undertake quick assessments of the current state of their customer experience, set targets for where they want to get to, and ensure that there is the required alignment within the business both vertically and horizontally. This means that your quest to deliver unique experiences to your customers is only achievable if there is a clear understanding of the kind of experience you intend to deliver within your organization from top to bottom. David Taylor in his book ‘The Naked Leader’ identifies what he terms ‘The formula for success’ and outlines the following; know where you want to go, know where you are now, know what you have to do to get where you want to go, and do it.

To manage the experience of your customers in the right vein you need to set yourself apart as a leader with a learning posturing while influencing your organization variously in the following ways; be comfortable with core business concepts, provide regular support cross-functionally, think beyond the customer, initiatives must quantify the financial benefits, know what your competitors are doing and leverage internal influencers.

Be comfortable with core business concepts

Customer experience professionals are great at engaging with the customer and understanding their needs through their interactions with them proactively at their touchpoints. This is great however to better understand both the customer and your own organization’s capabilities in addressing their needs, you must take time to understand your business.  Several toolkits are available to help you crystallize your business model and develop a granular understanding of what your business has to offer (competitively) to your customers. A good starting point is the Business Model Canvas a template that gives you clarity on your company’s standing in key areas such as your Key Partners and Key activities, so for a brand like Coca-cola their key partners are identified as bottle suppliers, distributors, and advertising agencies it also depicts other components of your business model namely, Key resources and Employees, your Value proposition, for example, Skype’s value proposition include free internet and video calling, free calls to phones and no roaming these attract customers to Skype as it helps them save considerably on calling and internet costs.

The others are Customer relationships, Channels, Melcom for example is tuned to selling well-known local and foreign brands among others. The point here is that as a leader in customer experience it will serve you well if you understand your business as well as the experts and can match this with your dexterity in dealing with customers. Finally, knowing your customer segments, cost structure, and revenue streams primes you as an expert in your trade and empowers you to lead effectively.

Provide regular support cross-functionally

A good customer experience leader is happy to support his/her team to shine in delivering great experiences. Looking beyond personal success is the way to go. It is worthwhile spending some time to get to know your colleagues and understanding what makes them tick, what keeps them awake at night. While it is important to celebrate your team’s success it is even more important to help the business succeed therefore your customer experience team’s success must align with the goals of the business. This means a strong internal culture where there are good collaboration and a common understanding of what the company is aspiring towards in terms of its customer relationships and how this is developed going forward. It means as a leader you must have empathy for both your internal colleagues as well as the customer. The culture of sharing knowledge and supporting each other to excel must be the high calling of what the organization stands for.

Your goal is to avoid any missteps that can potentially impede your customer experience design effort such as capacity overload where customer experience projects are seen as new work layered on top of the ‘real’ work of the business, colleagues may judge this to be a distraction from their main tasks. Your role is to facilitate a congenial environment by bringing together the silos and multiple priorities to create a one-company experience that earns the right to customer-driven growth. Influence the creation of a united company poised to deliver a customer journey and experience customers want to have again and tell others about.

Think beyond the customer

Be strategic about how you position yourself within the company. In as much as you are focused on the needs of the customer, it is equally important that you are receptive to internal requirements. Your role in influencing a customer-centric culture may require that you pay attention to some internal needs. For example, if your company does not have a business case template that is used to seek approval for projects, provide one (the template provides a structure for researching and presenting a clear and comprehensive document, helps stakeholders understand what you want to do, how your plan will benefit the organization).

If your company has one already feel free to review it to ensure that it encapsulates core customer-related questions such as its impact on the customer, communications required for the customer, and so on. Furthermore, think about how you differentiate yourself in terms of how you prioritize both customer experience and the employee experience. How do you manage customer or employee expectations in the products you offer. Do you utilize a channel that is always listening? How reachable are you? Can your customers and employees tell you how they feel after an interaction with your product or service? Research tells us that 80% of businesses believe they deliver “superior” customer service, yet only 8% of customers believe they experience superior service from those same businesses. Your priority must be to turn this around, doing this will change the narrative for your business as one that provides a superior customer experience, thereby differentiating yourself from competitors.

Initiatives must quantify the financial benefits

One of the challenges CX professionals face is how to quantify their accomplishments. Compared to sales and marketing customer experience is often viewed as a “softer” part of the business. The fact is sales can be directly tied to revenue growth, and marketing campaigns are linked to the number of leads they convert and customers they acquire. But how do you assess the ROI of customer experience? Contrary to what the skeptics think the benefits CX provides to a business are quite staggering as the evidence suggests. According to recent research by Forbes, Customer-centric companies are 60% more profitable than companies that don’t focus on customers, brands with superior customer experience bring in 5.7 times more revenue than competitors that lag in customer experience, and 84% of companies that work to improve their customer experience report an increase in their revenue. The key is to use data to prove the ROI of CX and paint a convincing story.

The covid19 pandemic brought in its wake the immense benefits of Customer Experience. Even though people could not be together in person, they still wanted to interact with their friends. One Company found a way to make it happen digitally. Netflix Party is a free Chrome extension that syncs people’s screens so they can watch Netflix remotely with friends and family and chat about the show. It’s the next best thing to being in the same room to watch a movie together. Netflix kept its business afloat by offering customers a unique virtual experience close to what they normally enjoyed before the lockdown period. Business leaders care about either top-line growth (revenue) or the bottom line (revenue – costs = profit). Every CX initiative must be able to deliver either incremental revenue (or revenue protection) or a reduction in costs (cost containment/cost avoidance). The key is to have access to credible data that tells the story. Use internal information to make your case, extrapolate the information and seek industry benchmarks to help you make realistic assumptions as you state your case.

Know what your competitors are doing

In the average organization, competitive intelligence is the responsibility of Marketing or Strategy functions with very little focus on Customer Experience. It is however important to consider the competitive landscape from a CX perspective. There are several benefits derived from analyzing the competitive landscape from the lenses of CX. First, it helps you discern how you differ from your competitors and to better communicate differences to customers. Second, once you’ve completed your analysis, you will be better able to target marketing and sales to accentuate where you outperform your competition. You are better placed to market to your target audience as you become aware of the perceived shortcomings of your competitors.

Third, it helps you develop a strategic mindset as you learn to evaluate not only your direct competitors, but also your secondary and even tertiary competitors from around the global marketplace. As you get to know your competitors, you can begin to anticipate their strategies and stay one step ahead of them. You also discover potential partnerships and ways to expand your product offerings. Janelle Mansfield a management consultant in customer experience suggests the development of teams and the creation of a standard template for each team member to use to give structure and consistency to the assignment. She further suggests regular team meetings to share about competitors regularly.

Leverage internal influencers

Armed with the ability to understand and empathize with your colleagues, speak the language of business, respond to financial considerations and share competitive insights, you are well placed to consider authority levers that exist within your organization. Consider who in the organization is most impacted as you bring forward any business case or share the results of a project. Having a pre-alignment with key influencers is always useful for a ‘rainy day’. As the adage goes, there is strength in numbers, you need your key influencers on your side to state your claim for an impactful CX strategy.

Always remember that it is your job to speak the language and connect your competencies to those of your internal stakeholders. Do the heavy lifting by translating priorities into concepts they understand, like revenue growth or cost savings, this way you will be further ahead in your organization and the discipline of customer experience.

The Writer is the Managing Consultant at Capability Trust Limited a People and Learning Organisation serving the market with Talent Acquisition and Management, Leadership Development, HR Outsourcing, and General HR Advisory, Training, and consulting services. He can be reached on 059 175 7205,

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