Does your team really believe that you care about customers?

While the desire to be customer-centric remains, companies’ actions in this area often fail to materialise, says Steven van Belleghem. Discover how small changes to the way you communicate and present projects and decisions can boost your leadership’s credibility

As a conference and workshop speaker, I am regularly invited to join internal company meetings to help endorse the company’s customer experience (CX) strategy and get employees excited about it. I love doing it, but it is interesting how often such meetings completely miss the mark.

Teams often arrive a few minutes before the presentation starts and you can feel the anticipation as the room starts to fill up. The CEO takes the floor and everyone sits ready to hear new ideas for making customers happier… but then the presentation begins with something like this: “Before we start with the customer experience part, I want to give you a quick update on our financial results and how far we have deviated from our targets.” There then follows a series of tables, graphs, numbers and arrows pointing out how much above or below the company is from its annual financial target.

By the time the meeting moves on to talk about customer experience, you can feel the vibes in the room have changed. Of course, members of the senior management think the numbers are of utmost importance, but people came to this meeting for something else – customer happiness, not C-suite happiness – and by starting the meeting like this, the CEO has already undermined the belief that customer focus will become the company’s priority.

Focus your messaging

Too many top managers and entrepreneurs underestimate the impact of small decisions and choices on the level of excitement people feel about a new strategy or project. If you want to get people engaged with a customer-centric culture, try to focus your message on that. Everything else is noise and creates the impression that you do not believe it is as important as you pretend.

Most companies have a PowerPoint slide that says customer focus is one of its core values, but if you talk to members of the team privately, they’ll tell you this message hasn’t really gone any further than that PowerPoint slide. The desire to be customer-centric remains, but companies’ actions in this area often fail to materialise. In my experience, the main reason for inaction is that employees simply do not believe that their managers are sincere.

How energising initiatives lose their sheen

I once had the opportunity to conduct several workshops for a large European construction company. After two days of very enthusiastic brainstorming and collaboration, the employees had come up with a list of about 10 customer-focused initiatives as part of a broader strategy.

The marketing director together with the whole team were happy and I shared their enthusiasm. They were all worthwhile projects. I was about to congratulate them on their work and say goodbye, when I suddenly felt a sense of doubt among the group. “This was fun,” someone said, “but our CEO will block the ideas.” I was shocked as I had discussed the project plans with the CEO and he was positive about the whole thing. “Would you be willing to present our 10 initiatives to our CEO? He might be more open to the ideas if they come from you,” one of them suggested.

A few minutes later I sat with the CEO and introduced the various projects to him. He was excited by them and even said, “we should have done these things a long time ago”.

I returned to the workshop and gave the group the good news, but they weren’t convinced. “We want to hear it directly from our CEO,” they chimed, so I went back upstairs. I returned with the CEO, and with just as much enthusiasm as had been shown in my presence alone, he approved the projects one by one. It felt like the issue of trust had been resolved.

Just when everyone seemed convinced that the projects were safe, the CEO’s voice echoed across the room: “You have my agreement but remember that ultimately, it is the sales figures that determine whether we have done a good job or not. So, don’t forget to put most of your time into selling.” With these words, the energy disappeared from the room.

Are you a customer-centric leader?

Everyone in that room realised what had just happened, except for the CEO. In his eyes, he had given the necessary support, but it was his decision to add one little phrase that undermined his credibility.

To help determine if you are a customer-centric leader, I have developed the following three qualitative questions:

  • What do you do when there is a conflict of interests between what is good for your company and what is good for your customer?
  • Do you try to solve problems or start an investigation? Do you always opt for the client’s solution or do you want to know all the details?
  • How much responsibility do you delegate to your employees for keeping customers happy? How far are they allowed to go before they have to ask for the boss’s permission?

There are various ways to gauge a company’s customer-centricity, but in my experience, answers to these three qualitative questions will teach you more about the level of customer-oriented culture within an organisation, as well as the credibility of the company’s leaders.

Steven van Belleghem is an expert in customer experience and the author of A Diamond in the Rough, which is available at a discounted price for AMBA members, courtesy of the AMBA Book Club

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