Radical Customer-Centric Culture Change, the Quiet Way

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Customer Experience
In the absence of a chief customer officer (CCO)--or even real buy-in from executives for expending time and resources on improving the customer experience--many customer experience leaders struggle to ignite the kind of culture change that re-focuses how executives and employees do things. I came across a Harvard Business Review article by Debra Meyerson called "Radical Change, The Quiet Way," from October 2001, which offered sage advice that applies to any customer experience leader.

In the absence of a chief customer officer (CCO)--or even real buy-in from executives for expending time and resources on improving the customer experience--many customer experience leaders struggle to ignite the kind of culture change that re-focuses how executives and employees do things. I came across a Harvard Business Review article by Debra Meyerson called "Radical Change, The Quiet Way," from October 2001, which offered sage advice that applies to any customer experience leader.

I was struck by her advice to managers seeking to "confront assumptions, practices or values in their organizations that they feel are counterproductive or even downright wrong." The advice is highly relevant to those working at a grassroots level to transition their companies from a product-centric to customer-centric focus.

I've adapted the four approaches that Meyerson discusses for aspiring customer experience leaders: 1) disruptive example-setting, 2) verbal jujitsu, 3) variable-term opportunism, and 4) strategic alliance building.

1) Disruptive example-setting. These are acts that "disrupt others' expectations" of behavioral norms. Actions can range from approaching a project in a new way to changing a policy. They need to be noticeable enough that people can talk about it and eventually feel brave enough to try something similar themselves. Some examples include:

- Using a customer journey map to frame a project. The process of creating empathy for what customers experience by walking in their shoes is often a grand departure from what most companies do. Leaders can do journey mapping as an approach to a project by working with a cross-functional group to construct a map of what customers will actually experience across a small journey. The leader at one cable company did this with a group looking to roll out new security protocols, which normally would have happened across a number of departments without much consideration to making it a better experience for the customer.

- Co-creating a new process with customers and partners. One of the most effective ways to ensure that products, services, and experiences meet customers' needs is to actually bring them into the design process. Designers call this co-creation. When customers are face-to-face with your design team, they can provide valuable input, including firsthand accounts of what they need and want, the seeds of ideas for others to build upon, and feedback that can be incorporated into prototypes in real time.

- Creating new customer experience heroes. Most companies recognize employees who go through heroic efforts to make a sale or to save a customer. However, those individuals or teams that challenge business-as-usual to design a great customer experience from the start often go overlooked. Find these unsung employees through voice-of-the-customer programs, peer-to-peer nominations, and management nomination processes and give them recognition. Feed their stories up to executives. The customer experience leader at one financial services firm paid attention to when the CEO would give speeches or get interviewed by press and make sure she provided him with a couple good stories to highlight.

2) Verbal Jujitsu. A second tactic that Meyerson suggests is to use "verbal jujitsu," which is essentially turning words on their head. The words that people use come laden with meaning and baggage reflective of the culture they are in...including a company's culture. Social advocates and politicians have understood the importance of verbal jujitsu for years in framing perception and debate (e.g. "pro-choice" versus "pro-life"). Here a couple ways that customer experience leaders have used verbal jujitsu:

- Put an end to jargon. Several customer experience leaders have started efforts to make the internal jargon that confuses customers off limits when interacting with customers. Some have set up mechanisms such as a "dirty words" jar that asks for contributions from offenders using specific internal language in written or direct communications.

- Re-frame discussions using the customer's perspective. Change the aim of projects by focusing on customer value rather than internal objectives. Many projects start with internal goals such as building loyalty, improving cross sales, or cutting costs rather than things that customers seek. Use simple tools like an "empathy map" exercise to re-frame objectives in the words that customers would use.

- Call programs what they really are. Firms often throw around terms like "loyalty" programs, when in reality they are little more than glorified discount programs or efforts to "trap" customers. The customer experience consulting firm, Walker, differentiates between clients a firm has made "truly loyal" and those that are "trapped." Use this kind of terminology to begin getting past internal self-delusion.

3) Variable-term opportunism. A third tactic that Meyerson refers to is "variable-term opportunism," which looks for short-term wins to build momentum that create longer-term opportunities. While a customer experience leader may have identified acute pain for customers, the firm may not be culturally ready to address these problems. Assess where the firm is at and find projects with clear business cases that build credibility to tackle larger issues.

- Short-term wins that drive shared value. Firms always have low-hanging fruit that require low effort but provide a meaningful benefit to both customers and the company. Several customer experience leaders have engaged front line employees in "worst policy contests that identify policies that most inhibit their ability to deliver great experiences. Others look at "top customer irritants."

- Longer-term projects. Some customer experience fixes require bigger commitment, more investment and greater risk, but also have the potential for greater rewards. Proposed at the right time with adequate executive sponsorship, these can also re-define the culture. Keep these kinds of projects in mind while looking at short-term wins to ladder up to these and to build allies who can support, fund or sponsor these bigger efforts.

4) Strategic alliance building. Finally, Meyerson suggests identifying the people across the company who have the power and influence to help change how things are done at the company. Customer experience consultant Jeanne Bliss refers to companies having a core of power (e.g. marketing, operations, IT) and the need for experience leaders to "dance with the power core." One customer experience leader referred to her efforts as "finding your friendlies." However put, find the influential people willing to carry the customer experience message for you, put money into pilot projects, and recruit others. Help these people succeed in their jobs by using voice-of-the-customer data and other customer experience tools to better define projects that improve the experience. Arm these people with stories that they can use to recruit others. Several customer experience leaders have promoted exclusive "pilot projects" that require managers to apply for in order to participate.

Ultimately, the purpose of customer experience leaders driving grass roots efforts is to create a critical mass of messengers talking about and illustrating to executives a different way of doing things. Keep in mind that USAA had more of these grass roots efforts going on for around five years before the company put in place its Executive Vice President of Member Experience.

Check out my blog for more thoughts about how to create a customer-centric culture.

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About the Author: Paul Hagen is a principal analyst at Forrester Research serving Customer Experience professionals. He blogs at http://blogs.forrester.com/paul_hagen

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