The DNA of a Customer-Centric Culture

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Customer Service
Customer Service
A company can devise a stellar customer strategy, but it will be no more than an exercise in futility without the right people to deliver it.

Prospective employees embark on the path to customer centricity the moment they step foot in Zappos.com's Henderson, NV, headquarters.

Call center candidates are first briefed by human resources (HR) on the importance of delivering loyalty-building customer service. Then they zip through a series of "speed interviews" with recruiters, customer loyalty supervisors, and other managers representing various areas of the company. Interview questions-such as "How weird do you think you are and why?"-are carefullycrafted to determine a candidate's fit with Zappos.com's passionate and slightly quirky customer-centric culture. Candidates answer one interviewer's questions; five minutes later the candidates hop to their feet and move to a seat in front of their next interviewer. Each speaks with four interviewers.

"The speed interviewing embodies several of our 10 core values, including 'great fun and a little weirdness,'" says Jane Judd, a 2007 1to1 Customer Champion and senior manager of customer loyalty for the Internet shoe and accessories retailers. "Most applicants come
in and they're a little shocked. Later, when we ask them what they think, they say, 'This is the best interview I've ever been to. This is fantastic.'"

The interview process, the cross-functional teamwork it requires, and the unique questions, Judd says, "gives us deeper insight into a person" than the company could hope to extract from a more traditional hiring approach.

What's the common element of the best customer experiences? People. And not just the customer-facing folks. Yes, those employees are vital and need the right attitude and skills. But what they also need is support from customer-centric leaders-leaders who not only craft a compelling customer strategy, but who also live it themselves and do whatever is necessary to help their staff deliver it as well.

"The only way to put the customer first is to deliver experiences through human interactions that are honest and driven by a set of values that enable the person interacting with the customer to be authentic," explains Dov Seidman, founder, chairman, and CEO of LRN, a firm that works with large companies on ethics and compliance matters. "Just as families can't copy each other, competitors cannot copy how your organization relates to customers and creates authentically rich experiences for them."

That helps explains why Delaware North Companies President Chuck Moran Jr. regularly emphasizes that GuestPath, the company's far-reaching, proprietary customer service process, "has to be the DNA of DNC."

The customer-centric leader

It also explains why, as executives of a
hospitality and food service company, Moran and other DNC managers know that they have to walk their talk. They regularly work side-by-side with customer-facing associates in hotels, national parks, sports stadiums, and other venues. Doing so, says DNC Director of GuestPath Jeff Hess, demonstrates the company's commitment to customer service, helps executives to learn from
their frontline colleagues about customer experience issues, and develops stronger camaraderie throughout the organization.

And it works because DNC's leaders are open to the experience and what they and their company will gain from it. As are many of the executives at such companies as Continental Airlines, Loews Hotels, Sysco, and Walt Disney, who also spend time in the frontline trenches.

"If I had to build a profile of an ideal leader in a customer-focused organization, the first things I would want them to possess are healthy self-esteem and self-confidence," explains Verde Group CEO Paula Courtney. "I would want them to be a calculated risk taker. Managing with your gut is a key dimension of building employee engagement that will translate into a more customer-centric organization."

Jon Von Rentzell, vice president, enterprise engagement, for Carlson Marketing, identifies four leadership attributes that are best suited to drive and support a customer-focused organization: the ability to build trusting
relationships that foster an empowered workforce; open communications; the promotion of creativity, experimentation, and ongoing learning; and authenticity.

The ability to drive change is also important. "Companies that put their customer at the center are quite often transitioning to that focus, so they need a management team that is willing to learn, take risks, take advice, and be adaptive," says Zach Conen, vice president of LRA Worldwide. "An autocratic management style is probably not going to work. You don't order people to be customer-focused; you encourage and teach them, and model the desired customer focus yourself."

Verde Group's Courtney agrees, emphasizing the ongoing nature of the leadership commitment. "They believe in the value of long-term initiatives," she says.

Looking that far ahead is rare at a time when many executives cannot see beyond the next quarter amidst intense earnings pressures. That commitment is necessary, though, and it explains why DNC's Hess bristles when someone refers to GuestPath as a "program." Doing
so neglects the ongoing nature of DNC's commitment to customer centricity.

"You can't be afraid to say as an organization that great guest service is also a business strategy," says Hess. "It's all about creating a service culture and that's something we have to do across all of our lines. This is not a corporate process. This lives out in the field, and our operators have to believe it because they execute it."

Hess' 18 years with DNC in retail and operations roles equipped him to help foster that culture by understanding what it takes to translate ideas into real-life practices and tactics. For example, he prefers to delegate training responsibilities to the field because that's where they are more effective. "My staff conducts leadership training for managers who then conduct the training for their associates," Hess explains. "The managers see their people every day, work with them, and hold them accountable."

A service-oriented front line

Customer-centric leadership requires "the opposite of a command-and-control style," Von Rentzell emphasizes, because sharing control with the workforce marks a vital component of customer centricity-and another reason why hiring the right people is imperative.

"A results-oriented [leadership] style is where employees are empowered to make decisions based on what is best for the customer," notes John Ely, a senior vice president with Signature Worldwide, a business and training solutions firm. "The employees need to be enrolled in a common vision, and trusted to make the right customer service decisions." The majority of customers who express dissatisfaction with a company, Ely points out, routinely cite a service representative's lack of decision-making authority as the main reason for their dissatisfaction.

That sore spot marked the focus
of the 2007 "Shoppers at Risk: Retail Dissatisfaction" study conducted jointly by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School
of Business and The Verde Group. The research, based on interviews with 1,000 U.S. brick-and-mortar retail shoppers, concludes that the presence of the following four sales associate personality types, or capability sets, can greatly reduce the most damaging sources of customer dissatisfaction:

  • The Educator: knows the store's products and helps shoppers find them
  • The Engager: is available, friendly, and willing to help
  • The Expeditor: ensures a customer wastes little time when shopping or paying
  • The Authentic: displays genuine interest in shoppers' needs and preferences-even when doing so may come at the expense of a sale.

    "Product or service knowledge and the ability to own and solve problems are key drivers of loyalty across the board, regardless
    of business type," says Verde Group's Courtney. Empowerment can't happen without management support.

    "We empower our associates to resolve customer problems on the spot," DNC's Hess says. "The key is that we don't want to make guests wait for a manager to resolve common issues." DNC regularly identifies the top 10 service issues in each of its business areas (hotels, national parks, airports, etc.) and then develops policies that define steps frontline associates can take when one of those issues arises. If, for example, a child drops his popcorn at the snack stand, the associate immediately hands the child fresh popcorn.

    "What's important is that all employees are able to view the world through the customer's eyes," Ely says. "This means they first assess a situation by how it impacts the customer versus how it affects them personally."

    The power behind the results

    Although DNC's practice of prescribing specific empowerment tactics may sound contradictory-if X happens, you're empowered to do Y-it makes sense on closer inspection. It also represents a common dynamic within customer-centric organizations.

    "Associates want to do the right thing in those situations," says Hess, "but they also don't want to be chastised for it later."

    Call it the paradox of customer centricity: Customer centricity requires flexible, entrepreneurial leadership styles; employees who are empowered to decide for themselves how to meet customer needs; and disciplined recruiting, hiring, training, and performance management processes to ensure that the previous two elements can thrive.

    JELD-WEN Communities, which operates four resort properties in the Pacific Northwest, recently implemented a highly structured training, customer survey, and measurement program from Signature Worldwide, in large part, to help employees take the initiative to address customer needs on their own. Prior to the customer service training only 10 percent of the "mystery shopping" calls placed to its resorts were handled by representatives who sought to identify the callers' needs by asking open-ended questions. None of the representatives
    proactively provided services or information.

    JELD-WEN conducted a three-month training program that began in February for all employees and even a number of vendors' employees who operate within the resorts. The program focused on raising awareness of customer needs, strengthening customer relationships, and taking ownership of customer interactions (i.e., empowerment). The program is also ongoing-supported by quarterly internal training sessions for all employees and twice-a-year visits from Signature experts as well.

    Today, 60 percent of frontline associates are now discovering what callers need by asking open-ended questions. And another 65 percent are proactively providing services and information, according to Signature Worldwide's data.

    DNC's GuestPath also emphasizes the importance of improving on service gaps rather than demanding that all business areas hit a specific customer satisfaction or loyalty score. And the GuestPath process supports managers in developing detailed action plans and training to improve any customer service weak spots.

    The measurement of customer experience, identification of improvement areas, and
    presentation of targeted training represents one of numerous ongoing processes within the GuestPath initiative. For example, DNC collects customers and guests' feedback through online survey tools available at the venues in which it operates, and managers regularly reward positive customer service behaviors exhibited by associates on the spot with gift cards, time off, tickets to sporting events, and two-night stays at hotels.

    The latter two rewards, Hess points out, are designed to reinforce the importance of understanding the customers' perspective. Hess calls it "walking the GuestPath."

    After all, customer centricity requires leaders who are willing and eager to walk a mile in their customer-facing employees' shoes.

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