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Leaders should focus on three key areas to create a customer-centric culture

By Dr. Larry Senn, Senn Delaney Chairman
November 15, 2011
Companies with a customer-centric culture strongly outperform their rivals. USAA, Zappos.com and Southwest Airlines are notable cases in point. CEOs like Tony Hsieh at Zappos and Gen. Josua Robles at USAA understand that creating a stellar customer experience is vital to their organization's bottom line. These CEOs have purposely led the transformation of their organizational cultures to relentlessly focus on the customer first. They have thoughtfully created a customer-focused culture that is deeply embedded in the DNA. As a result, they have become industry leaders and created a huge competitive advantage.

What's their secret? First, they see the customer experience as a cultural issue, and they own it at the CEO and senior team level like any other vital strategy. Second, they know that if their company isn't a great place for employees, it can't be a great place for customers. Valued and appreciated employees create valued and appreciated customers.

Here are three key areas CEOs and executive leaders must pay close attention to:

1. Become the sponsor and cast the right shadow

In our work with CEOs for more than 30 years, we have found that change must begin at the top. A customer-centric culture cannot be created or sustained unless the CEO is seen as the sponsor — he or she must serve as the catalyst and “chief culture officer” to drive the transformation and embed it deeply.

We coined the term “Shadow of the Leaders” based on our early research findings that organizations take on characteristics and behaviors of their leaders.

Leaders can cast the “shadow,” right from the CEO level, by committing to personally make customers a priority, by talking about customers and their needs in all their communications and presentations, and by spending time with customers to understand their needs so that they can help guide innovative solutions.

2. Create an internal employee culture that represents your brand and what you want for customers

When employees are having a bad day, you can be certain that the customers they serve will also have a bad day.

In our culture-shaping sessions, we help teams from the CEO and senior team to call center employees to understand from a personal, gut level the impact of moods on their decisions and thinking. We call this phenomenon the “Mood Elevator.” When employees are up the Mood Elevator, they help take customers there, too. As leaders of large organizations, you need to help everyone to be at their best as often as possible. Giving them recognition, appreciation and some creative latitude in how they do this is key. I flew on a Southwest flight earlier this year where the crew had pasted large hearts on the overhead bins. No one told them to do that but it lifted theirs and our moods that day. I got warm and friendly service leaving a Hertz car rental recently. When I looked on the wall I saw the Mood Elevator. The agent said this was to remind her to stay up the elevator and take customers there.

3. Understand your customer

I recently co-presented with Victoria's Secret CEO Sharen Turney at a Conference Board customer experience leadership conference. It reminded me how well everyone ? from Sharen's boss, Limited Brands CEO Leslie Wexner — to Sharen to her team to the bra fitter in the store ? intimately knows the customer. That mindset permeates the entire organization, from how quickly people respond to customers' needs to how merchandise is designed or changed based on intuition that needs aren't being satisfied or have changed. Is this kind of customer understanding and relationship as clear in your company?

Why should CEOs and their executive leadership teams worry about this? Because you must be the guiding force in helping employees connect to the belief that customers are central to them, and make those employees really believe that great customer service is part of their purpose. If their focus is elsewhere, then their customers' focus will likely not be on the great experience or product that causes them to buy and become loyal brand ambassadors.

I remember when we began our first retail engagement on customer service, we ended up with a slogan that captured this sentiment: “A great place to shop, a great place to work.” It's hard to get one without the other. It all starts with the corporate culture that you as CEO intentionally cultivate.

CEOs and their executive teams need to have customers or service as part of the explicit, overall purpose of the organization; customers are, after all, why the company exists.

This article was published in the fall 2011 issue of The CEO Forum, a quarterly magazine for CEOs.