Building a Customer-First Culture – Three Things You Can Do

Andi Lobdell
Andi Lobdell,
Managing Director of Client Development,
Root Inc.

With endless options for products and services, instant access to information, and the power to share their opinions more widely than ever, today the customer is almighty. Some companies have actively embraced this new breed of buyer – supporting them with free shipping both ways, 24/7 live customer service, and crowd-sourced product input to ensure the voice of the customer is being heard and embraced. But what else are the leaders of these “customer-first” organizations doing to win the hearts and minds of consumers? What can we learn from their focus on creating customers for life, and what does that mean for the people who work at those companies?

Understanding the Challenge

At every interaction, the potential opportunity to earn business is huge, as is the possibility of upsetting one customer too many. It’s a high-stakes game. Now is the time to educate and arm yourself and your workforce to create customer-first cultures that position you for the greatest, longest-term success. Here are some of the challenges you may see at different levels in your organization:

Senior Leaders:

  • Corporate and the field are not aligned on strategy and priorities – senior leaders are causing confusion by delivering too many disconnected initiatives to the field.
  • There are separate departments running stores, online, and the contact center (or franchisees are running inconsistent experiences across restaurants or hotels).
  • Leaders aren’t taking ownership for the whole business, which creates silos.

Managers:

  • There is a manager capability gap – they are the linchpin for change and they aren’t leading or coaching because they lack core skills.
  • Managers don’t have the why, the what, and the how of the corporate strategy and brand to successfully translate it for the frontline. This impacts employee engagement, and there are direct correlations between employee engagement and customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Frontline/Individual Contributors:

  • Organizations don’t have a true understanding of the current reality in the field.
  • Operational decisions have made the frontline’s job harder, or they have negatively impacted the customer experience.
  • Organizations aren’t investing in their frontline people –they treat labor as an expense, not an investment.

Building an Exceptional Customer Experience

Creating a customer-first culture means something different to every organization. The key is to clearly define what elements make up your version of being “customer first,” and then adjust or create processes, operations, culture, and behaviors that make it a reality. These three things can help make your customer-first culture a reality:

1. Senior leaders need to define “customer-first culture.”

  • Embrace the reality that your customer experience will never exceed your employee experience. Creating a customer-first culture starts with creating an employee-first culture.
  • Engage the hearts and minds of your people by developing a “story” with big-picture visuals that illustrates your brand promise and the optimal customer experience and people’s delivery roles within that experience.
  • Identify the barriers inhibiting a customer-first culture and whether or not they vary by store, hotel, or region. Engage your people in your desired culture, specifying “how we work together” to deliver a great customer experience.
  • Address the barriers between functions by making operational, process, or behavior changes, and ensure each prioritizes the customer.
  • Share what’s working, be transparent about organizational challenges, and reinforce best practices for moving forward.

2. Managers need to act as owners.

  • Make sure managers know their role and understand the customer-focused strategy as it relates to your brand.
  • Ensure people have the leadership and coaching skills they need to act as owners of their business and build the capabilities of their people.
  • Identify and communicate “bright spots” of what the best managers are doing to drive the customer and employee experience; showcase how others can adopt and emulate those same behaviors.
  • Underscore the importance of leadership and manager transparency around key measures and drive ownership of the results of the entire team with tools like Customer Experience Scoreboards.
  • Develop guides for fostering ongoing conversations about the journey to becoming a customer-first organization.
  • Implement feedback loops so managers can provide insight on how well initiatives are working and ways to optimize the customer experience.

3. Individual contributors need to create authentic customer experiences.

  • Make sure employees at the frontline understand your brand promise, as they will be delivering on it most often.
  • Engage employees in the company’s big-picture approach to customer experience and give examples of behaviors that support it.
  • Make sure individual contributors have the skills and knowledge needed to deliver on the customer-first vision, and help them set clear priorities of what’s important.
  • Build their sales and service skills, including point of sale, merchandising, and others that apply to your organization.
  • Set clear service standards and methods to guide employees about making tradeoffs and decisions.
  • Prepare them to anticipate customer needs in order to exceed expectations.

There’s only ever one chance to make a great first impression. Creating a customer-first culture that your entire organization embraces makes all the difference in how your brand is perceived by customers. Finding the right partner to guide you through the process can help. Consider the value of augmenting your internal skills with expertise from an independent, seasoned third-party who can extract the core of what being “customer first” means to your organization and support your journey with knowledge and tools. Take the first step and set the momentum for your organization to win customers for life.