For many businesses and industries, COVID-19 has made customer and employee well-being a priority. Witness Michelin-starred restaurants pivoting to making food for healthcare workers and carry out, or airlines voluntarily forgoing middle-seat ticket revenue.
Organizations at the forefront of customer experience—USAA, Zoom, Netflix, and Apple, for instance—excel at putting the customer at the center of everything they do. Even a 5% increase in customer retention can lead to significantly greater profits, studies by Bain & Company and Harvard Business School show. Customer experience leaders in Watermark’s new Customer Experience ROI study outperformed competitors and reported returns 45 points higher than the S&P 500 Index.
Employees of customer-centric companies also feel and do better, studies show, than their counterparts at other organizations.
Customer-centric culture begins with employees
A customer-centric culture is a set of beliefs and guiding principles that influence how employees think and behave, regardless of whether they interact with customers. All employees must understand who their customers are and what they love or are struggling with, so that they can make products, services, processes, and decisions in customers’ greatest interests.
Building or reinforcing a customer-centric culture must be endemic to an organization’s culture, and it requires consistent effort from every stakeholder.
Here are six battle-tested strategies to foster a more customer-centric culture.
Step 1: Assess the strength of your customer centricity
You won’t radically improve what you can’t measure. A customer experience assessment will reveal the strength of your customer centricity and identify the top opportunities for improvement. Tracking progress over time is imperative.
We recommend including high-impact survey questions in your existing semi-annual or annual employee-engagement survey, which should elicit robust insights from every corner of your organization. Dive into three dimensions of customer centricity:
- Whether employees know how they contribute to the customer experience
- Whether people managers make decisions with the customer in mind
- Whether employees believe their company consistently makes decisions in the best interest of the customer.
You won’t radically improve what you can’t measure.
If possible, add open-ended questions that allow employees, in their own words, to suggest how to create a stronger customer-experience culture.
An off-the-shelf customer-experience maturity assessment is another option. These are simple and require participation from only a handful of subject-matter experts from your organization. We recommend Forrester’s Gauge Your CX Management Maturity, Gartner Research’s Customer Experience Management Maturity Model, or Qualtrics’ Customer Experience Competency and Maturity Assessment.
Step 2: Create the vision with the C-suite
Engage your C-suite in your assessment results. Using insights from your customer-centricity assessment, highlight the greatest opportunities to strengthen your organization’s focus on customer experience. Executive buy-in for your plan is a prerequisite for success.
Every leader needs to be willing to shift the internal focus on operations, processes, and siloed operations toward a customer-first strategy. Changing the company mindset to prioritize the customer, along with operational and IT improvements, can improve customer and employee satisfaction and produce significant economic gains, according to McKinsey.
Step 3: Set goals and expectations
Once the executive team is aligned on a customer experience vision and plan, focus on embedding customer-centric goals at the company, team, and individual level.
At an organizational level, partner with the folks who lead annual strategic planning and companywide goal setting (typically corporate strategy) to ensure that corporate goals are designed to drive a customer-first mentality and reinforce customer-centric behaviors. Build customer centricity into your annual planning by answering two essential questions: Do funding priorities align with your top customer experience needs? Do your organizational goals measure your customers’ outcomes and success?
To ensure every individual in the organization is accountable to customer-centric goals, engage your human resources leaders to review team and individual goal-setting so that everyone has a customer-centric goal in their performance objectives and knows that customer-centric behaviors will be rewarded.
Step 4: Foster customer understanding and empathy
To encourage the entire organization to put customers at the center of everything, expose employees to the highs and lows of your customer experience as well as the customer needs.
Here are a few of the most effective strategies:
- Regularly invite customers to teamwide and companywide events so employees can better understand them and learn about their successes and challenges. While exposing your customer pain points in this type of setting can be uncomfortable, it helps keep employees focused on improving customer experience.
- Hold learning sessions where you ask cross-organizational teams to review customer feedback focused on a top customer pain point, and then brainstorm ideas to improve the experience. Informed by customer feedback, each participant will add their own expertise and constraints to the discussion.
- Provide employees with customer-experience insights. Transparency is important! Share your customer-experience insights with all employees—during key employee meetings or via accessible online dashboards and reports—so they include and prioritize customer feedback when planning actions. You may even consider setting up a virtual or physical “customer room,” where employees can access the latest customer journey maps, post-insight reports, and video and voice recordings of customers sharing their experiences.
- Facilitate more direct and personal interactions with customers by letting employees observe sales and support calls (aka ride-alongs). For non-customer-facing employees, this can be a powerful empathy-building tool.
Step 4: Create a strategic communications plan
Creating and maintaining your customer-centric culture works best when there is an internal strategic communications plan to keep it top of mind. An effective activation plan will focus on the following elements:
- Work with your executive team to develop and cascade your intended customer experience. A shared vision—one that’s consistently communicated—goes a long way toward establishing the customer-centric culture you’re seeking. Reinforce this customer-centric messaging by telling and retelling the story of how your employees will make your customer-experience ambition a reality.
- Continually update the company on progress toward your established customer-centric metrics. Update all employees at organizational and companywide meetings on your customer experience goals and progress on those goals. Sharing quarterly customer loyalty metrics and employee and customer centricity metrics and targets should be as important as sharing quarterly revenue.
- Celebrate customer-centric employees individually and in front of their peers through formal recognition programs to highlight the behaviors you want all employees to adopt and exemplify. Sharing their customer-centric stories, internally and externally, can help you recruit more like-minded individuals.
Step 5: Hire for customer-centric behavior
Embedding customer centricity into your hiring practices is one of the most effective strategies for maintaining and accelerating a customer-obsessed culture. A customer-centric mindset is arguably one of the most important selection criteria for all new hires across all roles. Recruiters and hiring managers should screen candidates for their ability to express empathy and a customer-first mindset.
Onboarding and continued training should demonstrate how an employee’s job impacts her customers and reinforces the desired behaviors. A formalized onboarding plan to educate new hires about your customer-centric culture is critical.
Step 6: Nurture, nurture, nurture
It takes consistent effort and attention to sustain a customer-centric culture. It’s an evolving process as you add employees, reorganize corporate structures, introduce new customer experiences, and transition employees to other roles. Even those companies that have a strong customer-culture—and the high NPS and employee engagement scores to prove it—need to continually nurture this ethos.
Developing these steps is hard work but worth it, because a mature customer-centric strategy can lead an organization to world-class results.