Building Blocks for a Customer-Centric Culture

We were meeting with the CEO of a successful chemical company. Known for good service, the company’s leadership recognized that remarkable service was vital to their competitive advantage. Price and product quality have, for this industry and many others, become mere table stakes.

“We know we are going to have to change many of our practices and habits,” the CEO remarked. “We cannot achieve distinction simply by doing what we have always done, only doing it better. What are the prerequisites for starting a culture change effort--one likely to be sustained?”

This is not a new question. It comes up frequently among savvy leaders who care about a permanent change, not just a faddish “spray and pray” effort. The good news is we have had practice addressing this question. And, it repeatedly proves to be that three “get your house in order” components--teamwork, accountability and a belief in the viability of a customer strategy as a competitive differentiator—make or break planned change. Let’s examine each more closely.

Teamwork starts with the priority of good collaboration. It includes the degree to which leadership teams work reasonably well together. No team is ever perfect. However, if teams are plagued with frequent debilitating conflict, a lack of genuine respect, an unwillingness to listen, and team members who opt for self-centeredness rather than other-centered, change is doomed from the outset. It is the same elements that make a family or partnership effective.

Accountability means there is a discipline or rigor in how people view their responsibilities…to the organization as well as to each other. Accountability means when promises are made or agreements forged, they are kept; and, when they are not kept there are clear consequences. The source of accountability need not come from authority; it can come from a value system that dictates always doing the right thing or from the recognition that being on a team means being your brother or sister’s keeper and watching each other’s back.

Belief in a customer strategy means that people in influential roles in the organization embrace the view that focusing on the customer and the customer’s experience can be a key differentiator in the marketplace. Typically it requires a commitment to changing behaviors, processes and procedures in order to align them with the organization’s chosen service strategy and service vision. We often find that people differ in the precise role of customer experience as a competitive strategy. But, if people in primary leadership roles think that average or mediocre service is okay “as long as we have a good product at a good price,” they are not likely to have the commitment needed to give a customer experience strategy a chance to take as a permanent feature of the culture.

Considering a culture-change? Examine the organizational priority of great teamwork, real accountability and the down-deep leadership belief that a well-executed customer strategy can set the organization on a path to competitive success. If it is not there, or not operating at a reasonable level of effectiveness, fix the foundation before beginning a change strategy crafted for the long-haul.

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