The Secret Ingredients of a CX-Led Company Culture

Steven van Belleghem

Professor Steven van Belleghem is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on customer experience in the digital world. He believes in the combination of common sense, new technologies, an empathic human touch, playing the long-term game and taking your social responsibility to win the hearts and business of customers over and over again. Steven’s passion is spreading ideas about the future of customer experience and has helped organisations including Salesforce, Microsoft, Booking.com, Disney and Google. Steven is also the author of a number of international bestselling books, including ‘The Conversation Manager’, ‘When Digital Becomes Human’ and ‘Customers the Day after Tomorrow.’ His new book, The Offer You Can’t Refuse, is out now.

When I talk to organisations around the world about their customer experience strategy, it is often the CMOs and their marketing teams who take the lead. They’re keen to improve the ways they attract and engage customers, and they want to understand the technologies that can help them make their customer experience truly outstanding.

However, the reality is customer experience simply does not live in a void controlled by the marketing teams. Context is everything, and the culture within a company and the day-to-day experience of employees have a huge influence on the kind of experience that is delivered to the final customer.

And the stats back this up. A study by IBM showed organisations that scored in the top 25 per cent in an employee experience ranking actually had double the return on sales revenue compared to those organizations in the bottom quartile.

So what is it that creates such a customer-centric company culture? Over the years I have seen some key ingredients that help drive a fantastic customer experience.

1. A crystal clear customer vision

I believe every outstanding customer experience begins with a customer-obsessed vision. Take Amazon, for example, which makes its ‘customer obsession’ the number one leadership principle: “Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.”

So why don’t all organisations follow Amazon’s customer-obsessed lead? Well unfortunately, it is not enough to just integrate customer obsession into your vision and your strategy. Communication is the key to making sure everyone in the organization – not just the c-suite – knows, lives and breathes your customer relationship vision.

Many companies struggle to translate their high-level strategy into the day-to-day context of every single employee. Without convincing each employee, one-by-one if necessary, you will never achieve the same sense a purpose or strong connection to your vision.

CoolblueBezorgt, the delivery service of Coolblue, is a nice example here. Every single presentation from the company’s CEO, Pieter Zwart, starts with the Net Promoter Score or NPS (the percentage of how likely customers are to recommend a company, a product, or a service to a friend or colleague). Each morning, all employees are shown their NPS-scores of the previous day so they can either be celebrated or learned from.

This is how the leaders have managed to get their employees to truly share their vision: with clear communication, and by involving them in every step along the way.

2. Embrace diversity

Whatever your industry or sector, chances are your customers are a reflection of society – and that means a delightful mixture of different nationalities, religions and cultures. If your workforce doesn’t reflect this diversity on all levels, how will your people be able to understand what customers need, want and expect?

Unfortunately, many companies around the world are still biased to hire WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) profiles, when they know society isn’t WEIRD. And your customers almost certainly aren’t, so it’s only logical to have a team that reflects the outside world.

But this shouldn’t just be a tick-box exercise to hire cultural diversity. Cognitive diversity is crucial as well. When culture is so important, it can be easy, and frankly comfortable, to hire people that ‘fit’ because they think and talk like some of the great people you already have on your team. Hiring people who act and think ‘just like us’ can be detrimental for innovation of any kind, but especially when it comes to customer experience.

3. Empower your team to aim for customer happiness

According to the Gallop Organization, companies that actively empower employees experience 50 per cent higher customer loyalty. Zappos’ late CEO, Tony Hsieh, completely understood that idea.

Hsieh knew customer experience was not something that could be manufactured through a script or enforced through a rule-book. He understood every customer is different, and every customer interaction has a different context too, so it is impossible to make them happy with a fixed script. When every ‘special’ case or decision needs to be escalated and validated by a manager, the customer experience becomes slow, frustrating and frankly, awful.

Hsieh took steps to entrust and empower employees on all levels to make their own decisions with customer happiness as their priority. The added bonus is this kind of culture of empowerment is it naturally attracts the best talent. If you have high potential employees and restrict them with rigid rules and hierarchies, they either won’t fulfil that potential or they won’t stick around. People need freedom and trust to make their own decisions.

4. Create psychological safety

The ability to experiment, test and learn is a key part of customer obsession. Amazon, for instance, has the One-Way and Two-Way Door rule to stimulate this.

Around 99 per cent of initiatives to improve customer experience are treated like a two-way door: A possible failure of a small-scale experiment will have a low impact, so you can retrace your footsteps – or go back through the door – without losing face, too much money or – worst of all – customers.

The remaining 1 per cent of customer experience improvements are the ones that have potential to deliver much more value when they do succeed. However, these ‘One-Way Door’ projects tend to be a lot riskier because you cannot roll back without feeling a significant negative impact. These innovations require much more research and thought before launching them onto your customers.

What does this have to with culture? Well, it raises an important question on how you view failure. You cannot expect employees to experiment with initiatives to improve customer experience if they are worried about being punished when things go wrong.

The nature of experiments is that trying something new will very often just not work out. The trick is to perform these most of the time (except for the major ‘One-Way Door’ experiments) on a small scale so that failure will have minimum impact, but maximum learnings. You should never point the finger of blame at those who were bold enough to try something new. Without this embedded in your culture, people will just stop trying, innovation will dry up and customers will leave you for those who do innovate to make the experience better.

6. KPIs can be a trap

As CMOs, we’re naturally drawn to metrics. But sometimes companies fall into the trap of measuring the wrong things and using the wrong metrics.

Let’s say your company’s vision is to deliver top quality and sustainable products. It might sound like a great strategy, but how would you measure that? One way would be to link that strategy to the level of returns of your product – let’s say a metric of ‘less than 5 per cent returns’. You might think that your customer service team could then gather data about the weak spots of returned products, which is fed back to your engineers who could improve the products, resulting in less returns.

But what if your team is working towards the metric, instead of the strategy? They could actually make the returns process more complex and difficult for customers so the rate of returns does indeed plummet, but also inadvertently creates a lot of frustrated customers and a dangerous blindness about the quality of your products.

As CMOs, it is crucial you understand the solid marriage between KPIs, culture and customer experience. Remember, if your company is purely KPI-driven and it has a ruthless ‘failure is not an option’ culture, employees absolutely will take the shortcuts they need to meet these KPIs, and it will be in ways that have a huge detrimental impact on the customer experience you’ve worked so hard to build.

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Tags: customer experience management, chief customer officer, CMO role, marketing leadership

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