In February 2017, Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, introduced the company’s new shared purpose and values, stating that “this drives us to be the best airline for our employees, customers and everyone we serve.” A couple of months later, a customer named David Dao lived a very different experience after being forcibly removed from flight 3411. How did this happen?
It happened because employees were guided by systems, rules and procedures, but not by values. They were not prepared or empowered to put the customer first. They lacked the freedom and authority to make the right decision.
So how can we fix these broken links? Customer-centricity is a critical component of business acumen and business success. But becoming a customer-centric organization doesn’t happen overnight – it is the result of a cultural transformation.
The following six moves are the steps we have seen the most successful organizations take to achieve such a transformation:
- Define a customer experience aspiration that is clear and common for every area and employee in the organization.
- Identify performance gaps through an execution readiness assessment that reveals the current state of the organization and the assumptions that need to be changed.
- Align and commit the whole organization to the cultural transformation by helping employees change their assumptions and define a personal purpose within your customer experience aspiration.
- Create a group of ambassadors and change agents responsible for setting an example and incentivizing new ways of putting the customer first.
- Develop the capabilities necessary to beat out the competition in terms of value creation and continuous improvement in the customer experience.
- Establish mechanisms that reinforce the transformation by incentivizing the dedication of time and effort to customer experience improvement initiatives.
Let’s break down these moves in detail and explore how you can complete each of them in your own organization:
1. Define a customer experience aspiration
Start by providing a common purpose that motivates people to act, and incorporate your customer experience aspiration in the values, priorities, incentives, systems, rules and procedures of the organization.
Powerful purposes focus people on the who, what and why of your strategy: who are you serving; what are their needs and wants and how are you delivering on them; and why those needs and wants matter.
As your customer experience aspiration will depend on cross-functional efforts, make sure that it involves and resonates with leaders and individuals in both customer and non-customer facing roles.
2. Identify performance gaps
While many employees talk up the importance of customers, the gaps between what they say and how they act can differ broadly for several reasons.
To find these gaps, start by segmenting your employees in groups. Prioritize by focusing on employees with the highest levels of leadership responsibility and the most critical functions for your customer experience aspirations. Prepare a diagnosis through objective multi-level and multi-source feedback that focuses on what is expected from each group and lets employees know what they do well and what they need to change or improve to become customer-centric role-models.
3. Align and commit the whole organization to the cultural transformation
Internal communication initiatives tend to fall short when you’re trying to drive a cultural transformation. To communicate change in a way that achieves impact, consider the critical drivers of alignment and commitment, and roll out facilitated working sessions across the organization.
Design the sessions to allow people to explore the desired future state of the organization and what is expected of them. These sessions should be viewed as an investment of time and energy in helping people contribute to and be part of the process, and should include an open forum for leaders to listen to employees’ ideas and concerns.
As part of building alignment, work with non-customer facing roles to help them see where they fit within the bigger picture and how they can embrace the culture whilst working with internal customers. This mindset will make collaboration more effective and improve the customer experience through a butterfly effect.
4. Create a group of ambassadors and change agents
You want your people to become customer obsessed, and you need a drip effect to create that obsession.
Select a set of employees to act as change agents and role models for the transformation. For this group, consider top executives (who are important references in hierarchical organizations), middle managers (as the bridge between top managers that define strategy and team members that execute it), and any other influential people (opinion leaders at all levels of hierarchy, distinguished by their knowledge and how well they are connected within the organization).
Set clear expectations for their role and co-create a work plan with tasks and responsibilities to drive the desired transformation.
5. Develop the capabilities necessary to beat out the competition
Design and launch learning and execution journeys that accelerate your desired future state. These journeys should focus on developing the critical leadership and business skills and tools that bridge the necessary gaps to build a culture of customer-centricity and innovation.
Leadership will have a key role in accelerating the desired cultural transformation, as the way leaders engage team members strongly influences the way these employees, in turn, engage customers.
Break down silos by ensuring the necessary adjustments in the organizational structure, systems, rules and procedures are made. These adjustments must reflect the company culture and the dynamics of collaboration and innovation that will improve existing experiences and create new ones that add value.
Also, consider the need to improve the collaboration mindset between departments, and the importance of personality traits and emotional intelligence to drive the correct attitude and behaviors in all employees.
6. Establish mechanisms that reinforce the transformation
It is critical not only that you help employees become customer obsessed, but also that they continuously, and effectively, apply their new skills to improve the customer experience.
Empower and equip people to do the right thing and improvise when necessary, and even consider policies that create space for practice. For example, allow for 20% of employee time to be devoted to customer experience improvement projects. Also, ensure that your priorities and incentives reflect the cross-function culture of customer-centricity, and its desired results.
We see plenty of organizations working with these ideas, and you probably see your company represented in at least some of them. But what we’ve identified that distinguishes the most successful companies from the rest is their effort to combine all of these elements to accelerate the cultural transformation necessary to become a truly customer centric organization.
United isn’t the only company that faced challenges when walking the walk in these matters. When we engage with large corporations, sometimes it’s surprising the divide we find between top managers’ views of how the organization is serving customers, and what teams at the front-line can actually get done. It’s almost as if they worked in different companies.
Overlooking some of the six moves is often the source of these broken links. If you look at your customer-centricity initiatives from this perspective, where would you reinforce your transformation?