“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a famous quote from management consultant and writer Peter Drucker. Just to clarify, he didn’t mean that strategy was unimportant – but that having a clearly identifiable and inclusive culture was a better route to organisational success. This idea has long influenced my own thinking about what made some businesses more successful than others, particularly when it came to delivering a consistently memorable and sustainable customer experience (CX).
When it came to understanding more about the link between Culture and CX, I looked closer at some of the companies such as Zappos, First Direct, Timpson and Richer Sounds, who for many, are poster children for great CX. I identified key pillars or foundational elements, that I called the Four Principles of Customer Experience, Culture, Commitment, Community and Communication, and have used these as the starting point to help organisations develop and deliver customer experiences that the whole company can be proud of.
The power of these principles, both individually and in combination, is that they are founded on deep, basic truths that have broad and enduring applications. When integrated into our daily lives they provide a context and a framework that can mobilize people to develop the understanding, skills, and patience to handle almost any situation. This is what it takes to bring home the bacon and is way beyond ‘lipstick on the pig’. You can’t pick these up at the cosmetic counter.
It’s no accident that Culture is the first of these, and while all are important, I believe that Culture is the one that will help organisations to shape and grow the other three and keep them top of mind throughout the company.
Culture, especially customer-focused corporate culture, isn’t something you can mandate, although that hasn’t stopped many CEOs from trying. Without a customer-focused culture, organizations can never truly achieve a strong customer experience. It’s often the missing element for companies that continue to lose the plot when it comes to customer experience. Your culture is effectively the bedrock of your company. It is a set of shared beliefs, values, and practices that is developed from the inside out and based on additional, complimentary principles such as fairness, courtesy, and empathy.
The key word here is ‘shared’, and by doing that you create an environment that is transparent, actionable, and constantly under review. Businesses that continue to be successful financially, reputationally, and have a strong ethical workforce have almost assuredly done it by involving everyone in the endeavour. Just like other life affirming actions, corporate culture is very much founded on a discipline and a set of behaviours and skills that are defined, refined, and guarded by the very people responsible for delivery on the company’s customer promises. Jack Ewing notes in his book Faster, Higher, Farther, “Corporate culture is never written down; it’s just what everyone knows.”
While, as I noted, culture can’t be mandated, it does need authentic leadership and support from the top to really make it sustainable and reflective of the organization’s values and purpose. This doesn’t just mean a snappy corporate video with the CEO telling everyone that “Customers are at the heart of everything we do”, although visible, constant reminders are important. An environment where the senior leadership is consistently engaged and actively model the attitudes and behaviours the company expects from the whole company in alignment with the values and its hard-won reputation. To quote Jack Ewing again, “Employees will not always do what is right, that it’s up to management to set an example.”
Setting that example and engaging the whole company can take many forms, but, as with many things, frequent, honest two-way communication is a key element to ensure vigilance and ongoing awareness of customer and colleague issues that can signal any negative shift in culture. The key elements are having employees that are both encouraged and rewarded for identifying customer issues, and senior managers who share company decisions and direction that can be influenced and informed by employee feedback and intervention.
I’ve recently seen posts and comments on social media suggesting that businesses shouldn’t necessarily model themselves on successful companies such as Amazon, Apple, John Lewis, and other customer experience stalwarts. While I recognize that Joe Bloggs Plumbing may have different challenges from the ‘big boys’, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t lessons to be learned, ideas and innovation to be tested. After all, the recipients of the services from businesses, large and small, are all still people like us, who, over the past 18 months as Covid-19 raged around us, have realised how important culture has been. and not only from a customer perspective. People behave differently in a crisis, but those with resilience and respect for one another, in organisations that have agile leadership and flexible employees who flourish in a continuously changing world, have found way to prosper and grow despite the challenges.
I’ll have what they’re having for breakfast!
Chief Customer Rescue Officer