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Four attributes of outstanding customer experience leaders

People and Culture

Companies like Apple and Virgin may have innovative and inspiring leaders at the helm, but experts say their success is less about the charisma of their figureheads and more about their dogged dedication to the customer. Leaders like the late Steve Jobs, Tim Cook and Richard Branson wouldn’t be household names if their organizations hadn’t attracted legions of loyal customers — and those customers wouldn’t be loyal if they had overwhelmingly bad experiences.

Executives who prioritize customer experience aren’t just doing it to feel warm and fuzzy. When Bain & Company surveyed marketing and sales executives on how their companies performed in 60 areas, it found that companies that excelled in customer experience had revenue growth four to eight percent higher than their industry peers.

To gain and maintain a competitive edge, company leaders must do more than pay lip service to customer service. Here are four leadership traits needed to build a truly customer-obsessed organization.

Demonstrate commitment to the company values

The job of any senior leadership team is to provide guidance and eliminate doubt or ambivalence. According to McKinsey, a great customer experience comes from a shared purpose among frontline team members and top management. A well-known example comes from the Walt Disney Company: “We create happiness by providing the finest in entertainment for people of all ages, everywhere.”

That stated purpose, McKinsey notes, “must be made clear to every employee through a simple, crisp statement of intent: a shared vision and aspiration that’s authentic and consistent with a company’s brand-value proposition.” Then it should be translated into a set of principles or standards to guide behavior and decision-making at all levels of the organization.

These core values are not to be confused with scripts, according to Micah Solomon, acustomer experience expert writing for Forbes. “Rather, they define the reasons why you are in business — what every employee’s purpose is at work, every day. Your employees may not get there with each customer every day, but every step they take should be in that direction.”

Model customer-centric behavior

For better or worse, company culture starts at the top. “In the most customer-focused organizations, leaders model putting customers first,” says Bob Sutton, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University. “Ray Kroc and Walt Disney would pick up and throw away any piece of trash on their properties,” says Sutton, an expert on workplace dynamics. “If you write to jeff@amazon.com, he doesn’t usually answer, but [his team is] remarkably responsive.”

Sutton says behavior modelling is especially important when it comes to customer service as a single negative experience has the potential to go viral in today’s market. “Since people weigh bad experiences much more heavily than good, when things go wrong employees at [customer-focused organizations] are trained in the importance of making things right for customers that have problems,” says Sutton.

An organization’s commitment to the customer is evident in even the smallest of interactions. “The experience of cancelling a service is especially telling. If they make it really difficult, that is a bad sign,” says Sutton. “In customer-focused organizations, anything that angers, frustrates or wastes a customer’s time is treated as a design problem.”

Getting out in the field and talking to customers helps executives better understand the problems they’re facing, and supports finding creative and innovative solutions.

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Empower team members to serve the customer

Research suggests that an engaged workforce is reflected in customer engagement. The same Bain study showed that the biggest differentiators that set high performers apart from low performers (as measured by NPS and market share growth) occurred in “a frontline that understands and passionately executes the strategy.”

Indeed, making things right often requires team members to dig deep and go off-script to remedy a problem. That level of empowerment starts with a “culture of trustworthiness,” says Blake Morgan, futurist and customer experience expert.

As an example, Morgan says Capital One doesn’t micromanage their employees, but rather gives them freedom to get things done for the customer. “This is because they have a culture with a foundation of trust, and trust is lacking in many organizations today,” Morgan says. “You can’t simply decide you want your company to be customer-focused rather than product-focused.”

Adopt a service orientation

The corporate culture of an organization, including the perks, quality of work, the level of empowerment and the overall work environment, often sets the tone for the customer experience.

Several years ago, TELUS International codified this connection between workplace culture and a firm’s top-line growth through a concept called the Culture Value Chain. An engaged frontline provides better customer service, creating more loyal customers.

Employee engagement begins with building empowerment and trust between the organization and its team members. The relationship between the organization and the broader community is another important factor. TELUS International President and CEO, Jeff Puritt, believes that giving back to local communities helps to attract, engage and retain top talent, especiallyin a competitivelabor market. “Companies that invest in the regions where they operate are helping to create a healthier, better-educated and more qualified local talent pool to draw upon,” adds Puritt.

Ultimately, highly engaged employees are the key to building customer loyalty. Whether you foster that engagement through career progression, workplace perks, competitive salaries, community giving initiatives or all of the above, it all comes down to culture, and that starts at the top.

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