“We believe in a customer-centric culture!”

“Our values include putting the customer in the center of everything we do.”

“We are committed to being customer-centric.”

Sound familiar? You or maybe your organization may have adopted similar mottos or share the term “customer-centric culture” as a guiding principle.

And that is great. However, like many parts of customer experience, it takes more than just words.

I recently asked one organization how they defined being customer-centric. The leader promptly approached the whiteboard, and drew this:

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It looks great. It sounds great. I’ve seen people put this into action by adding an empty chair to conference tables to “represent the customer.” I’ve seen full-size cardboard cutouts lining hallways to showcase the customer personas. I’ve seen posters that say, “What will the customer think?”

Those might do some good. I’m all for the IDEA of this.

But the reality is that a diagram, an empty chair, or a cardboard cutout don’t actually change business practices. And if we’re talking about creating a CULTURE around this idea, then that means we have to determine what makes up a culture in the first place.

What is Culture, Anyway?

Organizational culture is the system or collection of beliefs, values, assumptions, norms, and ways of interacting that are shared by members of an organization and influence their behavior and performance. It also reflects the organization’s philosophy, expectations, identity, and future direction. Organizational culture is based on written and unwritten rules that have been developed over time and are considered valid. It creates the environment and vibe of the organization and shows what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Organizational culture is usually defined and communicated by founders and leaders, but it is also shaped and changed by employees.

Organizational culture is a complex and dynamic phenomenon that can have a significant impact on the success or failure of an organization. So tossing out a phrase like “customer-centric culture” and yet not tying it to beliefs, values, assumptions, norms, and ways of interacting is simply a wish.

To build a customer-centric culture, we need to start with what might prevent this type of culture.

Barriers to Customer-Centric Cultures 

1. Leaders Don’t Really Understand Front-Line and Other Roles

Culture starts at the top, moves through the middle, and must make it all the way to the front-line employees, field technicians, contact center agents, custodial professionals, and beyond!

And yet many leaders carry with them a defined view of who those workers are. They believe they are not willing to be loyal to an employer, so they don’t invest in them. They don’t pay more than others because “these are low-paying jobs.” They don’t ask for feedback or provide avenues to hear ideas.

MIT professor and author of the book The Case for Good Jobs, Zeynep Ton, identified a false belief by leaders all around not trusting frontline employees. In a Harvard Business Review article, she outlined how leaders see frontline worker issues like high absenteeism and a lack of focus as defining this group. How can they be trusted?

With a lack of trust and a lack of understanding of these roles, leaders can talk a big game about being customer-centric and those words will fall flat when heard by the employees doing the actual work.

When leading workshops with leaders, I often start with a simple exercise.

Tell me about your last interaction with a customer.

You can see many in the room start to squirm. Some have NEVER interacted directly with customers.

It’s not their fault. The systems are built this way, and it’s easy to believe we are thinking about the customer when we are designing processes and creating efficiencies.

Before you announce a customer-centric culture, ask yourself how many employees have interacted with a customer within the last 30 or 60 days.

Leaders like the CEOs of Uber, Starbucks, and AirBnB have all announced formal plans to spend more time with frontline employees and interacting with customers. This will serve a few purposes around culture, including showing employees there is attention to this level of the customer journey.

2. Leaders Rely on the Excuse of “Business Is Still Business”

Leaders resist innovation around customer experience when they think it’s a trade-off between profitability and something they define as “soft.” So they use this concept as a way to focus on what’s “really” important to them, even as they ask everyone to remain customer-centric.

Yet when leaders request funding, resources, and support for efforts like building better customer data platforms or designing better feedback loops, the same leader will deny the funding and not see the irony.

Some leaders are simply not interested in a long-term play. They want immediate results, and setting up the right data architecture or gathering enough of the right customer feedback simply takes time.

It’s easy to say “be customer-centric” when you believe it really is just words and not actually a business discipline. Leaders need to paint a vision for how these efforts will serve the idea of a customer-centric culture. With the right information, at the right time, for the right person, the customer will be served in a more personalized and successful way. Not investing in these efforts is leaving money – and not an insignificant amount – on the table. Lost sales, service costs, high return rates, and even employee turnover are all happening without real focus on these practices.

CX leaders need to speak more directly and confidently about how these investments will serve the company long-term. They need to make a business case for these investments, not just a pitch to make customers happier.

Business is business. And guess who funds all of it? Customers!

3. Leaders Think One Dedicated CX Leader Means They Have a Customer-Centric Culture

Decisions are often made and confirmed by the org chart. Did we solve that issue? We hired a leader, so yes!

Reality is very different than the clean lines of an organizational structure on paper.

As organizations are starting, growing, and developing their customer experience programs, they often start with one leader. That leader is expected to do it all. Start the customer feedback program, design the journey, fix every customer ill, address the contact center technology issues, and address the frontline turnover issues, just to name a few! And while they’re at it – create a customer-centric culture!

Culture, as defined above, requires leadership but can evolve and grow based on the employees and their actions, requests, and ideas.

Installing one leader and asking them to be responsible for an entire culture is simply not fair. The CX leader probably doesn’t have responsibility for how managers are trained, or what the absenteeism policy actually is.

Creating a Customer-Centric Culture

So now that we know what the barriers to a customer-centric culture are, what are the ways to actually do this well?

Here are a few ideas to get you started. But culture is big and, frankly, it takes time to change. That’s why it’s important to treat this as part of the discipline of customer experience. It’s not enough to talk about it. It’s time to get to work.

1. Define what you mean when you talk about your customer-centric culture.

Does that mean you want to consider the customer at every step of the product development process? Does it mean you’ll involve customers in any design decisions? Does it mean you will respond to customer feedback in specific ways to close the loop?

Get real about what you can commit to, and define it well enough to translate what you mean into real actions and behaviors.

2. Stay close to the actual customer, no matter the role.

While it’s great to be the Undercover Boss and see things firsthand, that is probably not realistic for every leader, manager, technician, and other team members. But they can still be involved by hearing real recordings from customer service calls, watching videos, or seeing the thank you messages directly.

This is why storytelling is such a key skill for CX leaders. It is often our job to bring the customer INTO the organization.

3. Evaluate if you’re living up to this cultural ideal.

If a customer-centric culture is the goal, then how will each employee be involved? Look for ways to evaluate performance, seek ideas, and standardize what “good” looks like for employees. We must define what we’re seeking before we can hold them accountable for creating and delivering on a customer-centric culture.

And part of this is evaluating leadership, too. Ask leaders to participate in events, communications, or frontline days. If they can’t make time or don’t see the point, you might want to revisit this idea of a customer-centric culture with them.

Cultures are built and they can also fall. Lead with confidence and put your words into actions. There may be costs to consider, but a winning culture is priceless.