Which ever way you look at it, customer success is about leadership.
I’ve experienced this firsthand. Whenever working on a business where the CEO or key senior leaders had the customer in their heart, transformation programmes were easy. Budget was available. Goal posts moved. Stuff got done.
But, to be fair, it’s not always easy to be a customer-centric leader.
After all, what does it even mean in practice?
If you strip away the beautiful buzzwords and frameworks, what is it that leaders are supposed to DO that will make them a customer champion? How should they behave? Not in generic terms, but in practice? Every single day?
So, I looked at what successful customer-centric leaders do.
I considered the hundreds of leaders I had the privilege of working with over the years and started listing how I had seen them drive a customer-centric agenda in their business. Then, I spent about 50 hours to compile my conclusions into 8 questions which I’ll explore below:
Some of these questions are obvious. Others may make you think.
But for both, it's worth asking yourself the question: Am I displaying these behaviours all the time? And if so, are there ways for me to improve?
Question 1. How do I ensure the experience IS the product?
In many organisations, customer experience is the cherry that goes on top. It’s understandable. Our daily lives are driven by products, politics and profits. We do as we’re told, and race to our next deadline. Only a few of us get to look at the bigger picture.
Yet, for customers, the experience IS the product, service or brand they buy.
Every perceptual scientist will tell you we don’t separate different parts of an experience. Our brain considers it all as part of one package. When I take my wife to a gourmet restaurant, I don’t just go for the dishes; I go for a romantic night out. When I buy my next Apple, I don’t buy a computer; I buy a machine that just works when I want it. And my American Express isn’t just a piece of plastic, it’s the card in 20 years of travel has never let me down.
It’s not just me, it’s always been that way.
Gutenberg didn’t make better books than the scribes, but he made knowledge accessible. As the world’s first modern department store, the Parisian Au Bon Marché wasn’t a better store, but it offered the convenience of having everything under one roof. Or more recently, Kodak, Amazon or ChatGPT didn’t win with superior product quality. They disrupted with a unique customer experience. At least Kodak did so until the smartphone experience improvement to fit your photos in a handheld box.
This is even more pronounced in B2B.
While everyone obsesses about price and volume, 66% of global buyers are looking for vendors that ‘inspire’ them beyond the minimum requirements. In fact, when looking at 40 different ways to add value to B2B, only half a dozen are functional. The rest are experiential.
So, in B2B and B2C, one truth is universal: the customer's experience drives it all.
Customer-centric leaders recognise this.
They know that experience excellence is about more than mapping yet another journey. So they ask themselves and their teams how their business can deliver a unique experience proposition. Something that doesn’t just satisfy the customer’s wants or exceed their expectations. But that translates into something that is so authentic, competitors struggle to replicate it.
Question 2. How can I be (even) more explicit about our customer strategy?
There is an old Monty Python sketch I sometimes play at the start of a keynote presentation. It depicts the 100 yard run for people with no sense of direction:
It usually gets a chuckle, but in the land of customer excellence it makes a serious point.
Because many organisations still behave like the runners in the video. With the best of intentions, they launch various customer initiatives which somehow don’t really connect, and somehow all go in a different direction.
The reason is that they never defined what a great customer experience looks like in practice.
While they may have lofty brand promises and their teams sweated for days on journey maps, their leaders never translated the company’s customer ambitions into practical experience standards and behaviours every employee can work with.
Quick self-test: Ask 10 random (leadership) colleagues to describe the tangible characteristics of an excellent customer experience. If they all say the same, you’re in good shape. If not, you may have a problem.
Especially in larger businesses, this lack of specificity is problematic.
If we all define a customer experience slightly differently, everyone aims at a different target. Multiplied by thousands of well-intended employees, the only certainty is that different customers will have differing experiences, depending on who manages their touchpoint. Especially as all the digital, sustainable, organisational, agile and other transformations cause priorities to differ by department and touchpoint. The result is inconsistent experience, internal inefficiency, waste and interdepartmental flare-ups. Sound familiar?
To address these challenges, customer focused leaders always ask how to get more explicit.
They seek better ways to clarify what is and isn’t a good customer experience. Who is and who isn’t a target customer? What is and isn’t customer-centric behaviour?
Not by using big words, long PowerPoint presentations and abstract KPIs. But by using real people's language that describes clear customer experience standards. And by inspiring their people with ideas and mantras that help them recognise when they are getting it right. Or catch themselves when they don’t.
And they cascade these standards and mantra into the job of everyone.
So everyone knows EXACTLY how they contribute to the experience. What they must get right. How they need to behave. Not in abstract scores or big concepts, but using very practical guidelines.
Question 3. How can I make my people care?
Let’s be blunt.
In all of my years, I’ve never met a regular employee get out of bed to move the KPIs your dashboard cherishes so much. They come to work because they want to make a living. Be social. Learn. Perhaps even do something meaningful ?.
Also, unless they work in the front line, it’s hard for them to care for customers they only encounter as abstract entities in spreadsheets and reports.
So any business that runs their customer experience programme on a platform of scores, journey maps and chatbots, is asking their people to do something they don’t care about, for people they don’t know.
Given the choice between thinking about ‘what is right for the customer’ or ‘what makes it easier to work with their boss, colleagues and existing process’, the latter will always win. It’s not bad will. It’s just how we’re all wired.
For employees to care about the customer experience, two things needs to be present.
First, your people need to relate to customers as fellow human beings. Know their quirks. Their passions. Their emotions. How your company’s actions can contribute to their good days, or bad ones. After all, we can only care about people we know.
Then, they need to feel that the ‘thing the business does for these customers (and the market)’ aligns with their own values and priorities. That it’s something they literally get out of bed for. That makes them proud.
Which is why customer-centric leaders focus on empathy and engagement.
Rather than talk about abstract customer persona and statistics, they look for (emotional) stories about actual experiences with real customers. Bring customers into the business. Even let employees walk in the customer’s shoes.
And, they connect the external customer’s experience to the values and priorities of their teams.
This transforms customer experience from something the people have to focus on because they must improve scores, into something they want to do, because it lets them give fellow humans a better day, at home or at work.
Question 4. How can I make customer focus easy and enjoyable for my people?
Even the most engaged and focused employee will lose their drive to be customer-centric, if the business gets in the way. If they have to fight their way through systems, processes, KPIs and organisational habits that make it complicated, or risky, to prioritise the customer.
So the employee experience needs to match the customer experience.
Not by purchasing more pinball machines or beanbags. But by making it as easy as possible for employees to contribute to the overall customer experience, regardless of where they are in the business. Everyone talks about making life easy for the customer, but at least as much attention should go to making the employee’s job easy, rather than complicated (yes, Microsoft, SAP and others, I’m looking at you).
Moreover, customer focus needs to be enjoyable.
Rather than always hearing customer voice comments on how the business is getting it wrong in the eyes of the customer, employees need to feel that their efforts are leading to improvement. As individuals, and as a team. A winning team is much more likely to take home the next match.
Which is why customer-centric leaders craft a flow.
They adopt a ‘lean business’ approach by eliminating all activities and priorities that don’t add customer value. This way, putting as much focus on making life easy for their employees as they do for their customers. And then, they use positive stories, daily reminders and social dynamics to ignite an upward spiral, which encourages and celebrates employees to get ever closer and become involved with customer topics, regardless of their job.
Question 5. How can I check my biases and help others do the same?
We all do it.
Even when we think we’re listening to the customer, we contaminate their voice with our own perception. We close information gaps with assumptions that make sense to us, but may not be part of the customer’s reality. Especially if we’re pressed for time or have resource gaps. Our mind takes shortcuts and convinces us we’re right, even if we’re veering off track.
We have all lived with the results.
User interfaces that aren’t as intuitive as the designers thought. Loyalty programmes that don’t connect to what we care about. Contact centres that make us bounce around like a ping-pong ball. Print that is too small to read for anyone over 50.
Which is why customer-centric leaders check and challenge biases.
For every customer statement that is made, they check whether it is a ‘verified fact’ or an ‘assumption’. If the latter is the case, they either label it or attempt to verify it with the customer by observing their behaviour, or walking in their shoes.
They also assume that no customer problem or challenge is what it appears to be on the surface. Instead, they dig for the root cause. The reason, behind the reason, behind the reason. Only when they have a clear picture of what’s going on, they move.
This could initially appear to slow things down.
Especially in our world of agile sprinting and limited resources, there is a constant pressure to move fast and deliver results. But if you based these results on unvalidated assumptions, you may be very right in solving the wrong problem. Speed is often overrated.
Question 6. How to I convert positive customer experiences into value?
We all know that - in principle - happy customers are more profitable. But businesses should put this principle into practice.. Otherwise, the whole customer experience conversation can become a question mark in the most willing boardroom.
At a macro-level, customer-centric leaders report in money, rather than scores.
Through metrics like earned growth or account value at risk, they translate useful, yet abstract numbers like NPS or Customer Effort into language that resonates with heads of finance and sales.
lso ensuring that any analytics focus on what drives the money, rather than the likelihood of someone to recommend the printing on the wrapper around a candy bar.
At a micro-level, they ensure happy customers are profitable customers.
If research tells them that happy customers buy more, more often, or at better prices, they ensure they buy everything they might need (without pushing). If they know customers ‘are willing to recommend’, they provide them with stories or ask for testimonials. If they find one customer profile to be happier than others, they focus their acquisition efforts on ‘more of the same’.
And at a societal level, they understand that value is about more than money.
Because it’s often ignored that the right customer experience can be a massive driver for sustainability, fair trade, employee engagement and even internal diversity. So, they engage with their sustainability, D&I and even procurement colleagues to ensure the business takes every opportunity to create and capture value. Monetary or not.
Question 7. How can I evolve the experience for today and tomorrow?
The Japanese gifted us with the concept of 'Kaizen', a term that embodies the spirit of relentless improvement.
This is highly valuable in the customer world.
Every problem or mistake becomes an opportunity to get it right next time. Not just by fixing the problem for one customer, but by using insights and data to pre-empt it for all customers. I.e. If you know a customer will be unhappy because you’ve made a mistake, you can call them before they call you.
But customer-centric leaders do more than react and improve.
They realise that today’s great experiences are tomorrow’s minimum requirements, so they also look beyond their customer’s feedback at what’s happening in other industries. At technologies that aren’t in use, but could revolutionise relationships. At societal trends and developments that may affect their business, or their customers.
They use these to ‘skate where the puck will be.’
Rather than stick to their industry’s habits, which may have developed over decades or centuries, they challenge their company’s current business model and customer relationship with disruptive ideas or technologies. Visionaries even envision 'experiences as they should be' with multidisciplinary teams.
This way, they don’t just improve what exists today, they also build what should exist tomorrow.
In case you’re interested in Japanese quality improvement thinking, next to kaizen, also explore the words kaikaku and kakushin. It’s only when you balance the three that you get actual progress.
Question 8. How can I (help my colleagues) step into uncertainty with confidence?
No matter how much we listen, plan, engage, and empower, the future will differ from what we expect. Things will not go as planned. Customers will not behave as we assumed.
This may create a temptation to double-down on control mechanisms.
More scores. More processes. More data. More omnichannel systems that track every customer, always, everywhere. Frantically trying to cater for every combination and permutation of segment and circumstance.
But we live in a complex world.
We cannot control everything.As stated before, the experience IS the product the customer buys. Which means it’s not just our actions alone that determine whether it’s good or bad. If I just had a heated debate with my wife, I may take it out on your delivery van driver. If Uber just got me a refund in 6 minutes flat (actual story), your hard earned 24 hour response may seem slow.
So, customer-centric leaders go with the flow and encourage others to do the same.
They set clear targets for the experience that ‘must be delivered’. Push decision making to those that are closest to the customer, and coach their teams to do what’s right. Even if it means breaking the rules. Or learn from their mistakes. They explore new directions, experiment with new technologies and step out of their comfort zone.
All knowing that - until further notice - customers and employees are humans. Hard to know. Fickle. Illogical.
But we wouldn’t have them any other way.
In the end, it’s all about your world view.
If you believe that the experience IS the product (service/brand) your customer buys, the other questions and associated behaviours become self-evident.
I your business cannot make this mental jump, it will continue to struggle on customer topics.
Because you’ll be trying to apply a square product- or service-era peg into a round experience hole. With enough pressure, it can fit. But never comfortably, and not for long.
So here’s my real question:
? What's your take on these 8 questions??
? Do they resonate, or am I stating the obvious?
? Did I miss something important?
? And are you asking them yourself?
Are you ready to level up your customer game?
Then let's have virtual coffee about your situation and what would need to change.
Even if we don't end up doing business, I'm sure the conversation will be interesting.
Or check out my Executive Sparring page...
Alain Thys is an experience architect who helps organisations drive profit and transformation through experience.