Lead a customer-centric culture:… tactfully navigate the internal dynamics to win the argument 


Everything rises and falls on leadership. These are the wise words of John Maxwell, the renowned leadership coach. That leadership is critical in the achievement of any endeavour cannot be overemphasised. In a world of fast-paced changes, the average organisation must invest a good chunk of its resources on improving internal dynamics encompassing its processes, systems, operations – and more importantly, its people.

When leadership focuses on developing people, it paves the way for the organisation to function optimally.  Growth will be a matter of course, as the task of leading an informed group of people is made easier in an environment where skills, knowledge and attitudes are harnessed in ways which align with the big picture…. the company’s vision.  As John Maxwell states so poignantly, when leadership has clarity on where they are going and are willing to carry everyone else along, the outcome is phenomenal.

Easy to say; however, in reality, there is no easy answer or short-cut to business success. Getting the basics right is critical, and it all comes down to where you are today culturally, and the readiness of your organisation and leadership to embrace customer experience as an organisational practice by building the resilience that will ensure you avoid the pitfall of ‘mission drift’ – a loss of focus on your organisation’s founding principles.

Building teams with the right mindsets will enhance your competitiveness in an unquantifiable way. Customer Experience Professional Gayana Helder suggests 3 key lessons we can learn from in our quest to harness a customer-centric culture. First, get senior leadership support; second, make the decisions that will justify the return on investment; and third, avoid operating in silos with conflicting objectives and KPIs that don’t align.

Additionally, (in my opinion) we must not ignore the potential impact of the informal organisation in driving the change that will lead us to desired outcomes. Therefore, turning this on its head, we can argue that it pays to promote a culture that supports productive involvement of the informal organisation.

The informal organisation

Customer experience must address two sides of the same coin. As much as you focus on the customer, equal attention must be given to your employees. Getting leadership buy-in is a necessary ingredient for achieving impactful outcomes. It may require a bottom-up approach if you are to convince leadership of the need to commit resources to customer-focused initiatives.

Build enthusiasm from the bottom-up (again inspired by John Maxwell’s take – 360-degree leadership). Get together with like-minded people in your organisation and influence conversations around the customer. This approach has its roots in informal organisations. Leverage social interactions and relationships between organisational members, and use this network productively to influence customer-centric thinking.

Think of your colleagues who regularly share an interest of some sort with you, and engage you in work-related conversations without any official structure. These people may share ideas with you informally with some significant outcomes, or participate in a regular pastime such as playing golf, tennis or simply walking with you to keep fit. Another example would be a group of co-workers who join you for ‘waakye’ or kenkey meals and discuss projects. They do not have an official structure, but they do organise themselves to increase efficiency.

As much as they are members of an informal organisation, they hold official offices and have formal duties – but they also bring their values, personal interests and assumptions into the equation of how they act. Members develop friendships, alliances, and are trusted sources of information and preferences on how tasks should be performed. Among these are front-liners who engage directly with customers and are dealing with their issues daily.

The informal organisation can be very insightful in understanding customer needs first-hand. Getting to know and empathising with the customer requires much more than scientific analysis, as real-life customer stories are not easy to grapple with. In a survey conducted to learn what was most valued and important for customers (from employees’ perspective), this is their preferred order from the responses: expertise, relationship, and trust.

What the employees did not know was that the same questions were asked customers, and their responses revealed a different pattern. What customers valued most in preferential order was trust, relationship, and expertise. Both parties were enthusiastic about what was most valuable, but disagreed on the order of preference. The taste, they say, is in the eating. Senior leaders are responsible for defining the organisation and are pivotal in ensuring its adherence to the mission/vision, but in crafting a customer-centric culture we must make room for both the formal and informal organisations to leverage their collective strengths for goal attainment.

Getting senior leadership support

The following insights shared by Ian Golding resonate with the argument that leadership’s role in driving a customer-centric culture is pivotal to managing customer experience effectively in any business. He suggests 6 things customer-centric leaders must do. The first is that meeting and talking to customers will help leaders truly understand how customers feel about the experience their company delivers.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon has been able to create a strong customer-centric culture in his business by introducing 14 principles of leadership encompassing such things as obsession (start with the customer and work backward), ownership, and learn and be curious. Many have found these principles fascinating and inspiring. However, very few senior leaders seem to want to acquire knowledge in the subject of Customer Experience.

They either know it all already or do not deem the subject important enough to warrant their attention. Senior leadership is reluctant to attend Customer Experience workshops. The irony is that the middle-managers they nominate to attend these workshops conclude after the training that their leaders need to sit through these workshops as an absolute priority!  A truly customer-centric leader understands that you never stop learning.

Customer-centric leaders put the good of the organisation ahead of their gain. They recognise that it is together, as one organisation, that the Customer Experience is created and delivered. They direct their energies at ensuring that everyone is working in harmony.  They humbly recognise and celebrate the good things people do frequently, thus motivating employees to aspire for higher laurels – which ultimately translates (positively) into their dealings with the customer, even if it is not in their direct area of responsibility.

Note also that Customer-centric leaders would not eat in a separate room from their employees – not in the 21st century anyway! Customer-centric leaders would see lunchtime as the perfect opportunity to find time for ‘conversations’ with staff about customers, as well as their lives in general. I had this personal experience years ago when I visited the global headquarters of my company in Oslo, and had the privilege of a good half-hour conversation with the President of the company at lunchtime. It was the highlight of my duty tour, and it reshaped my perception of the business. And clearly, my commitment to my role and the company was buoyed-up significantly.

Justifying return on investment

Proponents of customer-centricity face the biggest obstacles as change-makers in convincing executives that the investment will yield a return. Compared to functions like sales and marketing, customer experience is often seen as a ‘softer’ part of the business. Sales can be directly tied to revenue growth, and marketing campaigns are linked to the number of leads they convert and the customers they acquire. How do you justify the need to plan adequately to address customer sentiments?

According to a series of surveys conducted by Forbes (the American business bi-weekly magazine), customer-centric companies are 60% more profitable than companies that don’t focus on customers. They also revealed that brands with superior customer experience bring in 5.7 times more revenue than competitors lagging in customer experience; and they reported further that 84% of companies that work to improve their customer experience report an increase in their revenue. Therefore, when done right, investing in customer experience brings a strong return on investment.

The key is proving this convincingly with data from customer engagement activities to demonstrate to nay-sayers that the ROI of CX is not a fluke.  By focusing on building a customer-centric business (by listening to them), you send a clear message to your customers that their needs rank high on your wish-list. Companies that are not customer-centric tend to send messages they think customers want without actually getting their input or feedback.  This could lead to huge amounts of wasted resources on marketing, and products that simply don’t resonate with customers.

I know, it is easier said than done. Gayana shares from her personal experience to prove that merely concentrating on numbers is not necessarily a panacea for proving positive ROI outcomes. She admits it can go wrong; according to her, experience has proven that when it comes to measuring customer experience you need much more than just the numbers game. Experts assert that although customer experience always leads to financial rewards, it is important to first create the environment for change to happen. Your team must first seek to deliver the future model before tying-up performance metrics or a bonus. Patiently working through this process will ensure that you do not frustrate the whole organisation by creating the wrong culture. Put simply, don’t try to go too fast too soon.

Operating in silos with conflicting objectives and KPIs that don’t align

According to Customer Experience thought-leaders, one of the major barriers to achieving a sustainable focus on Customer Experience is a lack of cross-functional collaboration. The inability of organisations of all shapes and sizes to break down the silos and walls that sit between different functions in their businesses is a considerable contributor to customers all around the world regularly having ‘random or unintentional experiences’.

This is Ian Golding’s (CustomerThink) take on random or unintentional experiences. “If you think about any business you transact with regularly – your bank; or utility company; or telecoms provider – while much of the time they can meet your basic expectations, very often they will not.  In other words, interacting with most companies remains a little bit of a lottery – sometimes it works; sometimes it does not. This lack of consistency defines the ‘typical’ customer experience being delivered today.”

You need to take a step back and ask “What is the desired customer experience that you want to deliver?” Take time to learn what you want your customers to feel; once you know this, you can then translate it to your customer journey. In practical terms this means a lot of out-of-the-box activities, and these can lead to insightful outcomes. For example, by having your sales representatives exchange roles with the customer you allow them to experience first- hand the promises you make to your customers, across different departments and during conversations you have with customers. This way, you get to learn different viewpoints of what customers think as revealed to your entire team.

Two key insights are to, first, focus on structuring the organisation based on the customer journey with a focus on aligning with different silos; and next, help all employees to understand the role they play in delivering the desired customer experience across the company. The real game-changer is to help your employees experience and understand the parts of other contributors. Everyone thus sees the customer from ‘the lenses of the customer’. Breaking away from silos is the way to go.

This happens also from an IT perspective, where data between departments can create data silos. Having an efficient IT solution to support your employees who support your customers is key. H. E. Luccock – the prominent American Methodist minister and professor of Homiletics at Yale Divinity School – once said: “No one can whistle a symphony alone. It takes a whole orchestra to play it”. We can align KPIs, but the real magic is when your employees understand their own and that of their other colleagues’ (other departments) part to be played. Abandon silos and work toward information-sharing and collaboration. The following are signposts we must reflect on consistently:

  • Create a movement bottom-up, and inspire the senior leadership team to actively participate.
  • Choose not to be blind to the power of enthusiasm as a company.
  • Share real-life customer stories.
  • You are what you do, not what you say. Making courageous and uncomfortable decisions is part of the deal.
  • Align with the customer journey and ensure every employee understands the role they and all other contributors play in delivering the desired customer experience.
  • Leverage the opportunities presented by the informal organisation.

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