Corporate Culture: The Key to Customer Experience

Beyond the Front Line

Most leaders understand front line employees make a difference in customer experience, but front line interaction are only one factor in strong customer relationships. Customer experience depends on everyone in your organization, and it’s a reflection of the corporate culture that shapes your brand.

The connection between brand and culture is important. If your brand resonates with customers, that demonstrates that your business strategy is in tune with customer needs. When they don’t line up, customers become wary of your brand messages because they are either not customer-centric or your employees and policies undermine them.

Actions speak louder than words. Send the right message by carefully aligning your strategy, brand and customer experience, and you’ll no only attract more high quality customers, you’ll also accelerate your business momentum.

It’s not just a touchy-feely thing

Some numbers-driven executives may dismiss culture as the “feel good” domain of HR professionals, but that’s a big mistake. It’s not just about the warm and fuzzies.

Even 20 years ago, studies showed the relationship between company culture and improved business performance. Harvard professor John Kotter compared the performance of organizations that made company culture a key aspect of their strategy and those that didn’t.

The difference was dramatic, showing that:

  • Revenues increased 4 times faster
  • Job creation rates were 7 times higher
  • Profits were 750% higher and
  • Customer satisfaction doubled

Wouldn’t you like to see results like that in your business?

It’s possible. Recently, we’ve seen a number of examples where companies that focused on culture have delivered outstanding business results.

There was just a write up in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on a company called the Gem Shopping Network that tripled its revenues in two years. The secret? Listening to employees and not only understanding their challenges, but addressing them.

This included providing employees with additional education and tools to make their job easier. It also involved executives becoming more present and visible in the business, so that employees could see they were willing to work just as hard as their staff.

The telecom company Grasshopper is another example. The founders were struggling to grow from about $10M in annual revenue to their goal or $20 million or more. They wisely realized there were some items holding them back.

One was lack of a clear culture, so they invested in leadership assessments for the senior team and spent time clarifying the core values they wanted the company to embody. This enabled them to be more focused in both expressing their culture and in hiring employees that were a cultural fit.

As a result, their turnover decreased from 25% to just 10% while market share increased and operational results improved.

Connecting Culture to Customer Relationships

The fact is that whether it’s healthy or not, your corporate culture is reflected in the way employees interact with customers, suppliers and partners.

Exceptional leaders understand that culture is crafted from the top down, and it’s a key indicator of the health and welfare of your corporate vision. Corporate culture is also a critical component of customer relationships that last.

Here are five ways your corporate culture influences business success:

1. Caring or Callous?

Employees who care treat customers well, employees who don’t, won’t. Some people naturally have a more caring and compassionate nature, but caring can be instilled in your culture as well. Do managers and executives know people by name? Do they take time to ask about interests, hobbies, family? If so, is this sincere or a simple formality?

If you’ve ever worked for a boss who could barely remember your name, you know that’s not a good environment!

Showing care and concern for others, both personally and professionally, makes a difference. When a caring attitude is part of everyday work life, it quickly extends into customer interactions with a similar approach.

2. Ethics are contagious.

If you want employees to deal ethically with customers and suppliers, start by modeling appropriate behavior within your firm. Little lies or half-truths from leaders suggest that it’s ok to stretch the truth. Once people cross that line, it’s hard to remember where it was in the first place.

Things like fudging on expenses – picture the supervisor who says to an employee, “Don’t worry, I can write this off” when he really shouldn’t, pilfering supplies for personal use or purposely undermining coworkers may seem like minor infractions.

But people notice. They get the message and before you know it, customer relationships suffer from suspicion and lack of trust.

The atmosphere becomes one of “I’ll get mine and I don’t care what it costs you,” becomes prevalent, and it seeps into customer interactions.

3. Going the extra mile.

If going above and beyond is recognized and rewarded within the company, employees are more likely to do what it takes to meet customer needs.  Do managers go out of their way to communicate effectively with employees? Do they work hard to solicit feedback and act on concerns?

If shoddy work is routinely accepted, when people drop the ball on projects without consequences, these habits will extend to interactions with customers. Emphasize follow-through, attention to detail and a “make it happen” approach internally and enjoy the same level of accountability when dealing with customers.

Publix is great at this. If you’re in a store and you need to find something, any employee you ask will personally escort you to the location to be sure you find it. They also look after employees, offering stock and scholarships to everyone from baggers to senior management.

4. Empowered for action.

When employees know they have the latitude to act on issues that arise without fear of micromanagement of retribution for coloring outside the lines, they also feel empowered to creatively address customer concerns.

While bending the rules isn’t good, creating a framework within which employees have flexibility to make decisions is empowering. It shows trust for employees and encourages actions that support co-workers as well as customers. Let employees demonstrate that they have the ability and desire to make things happen, and customer loyalty skyrockets.

5. Do the right thing.

When you treat your employees well, insisting on professionalism, respect and consideration, it shows inside and out. Like creating an environment of trust, mutual respect and the commitment to “do the right thing” increases employee commitment.

Employees who know that they will be treated fairly even when the news isn’t good will extend the same courtesy to customers. Instead of placing blame or shirking responsibility, companies that value integrity encourage honesty, candid feedback and making things right.

How’s Your Business Doing?

Do you recognize your business in any of these scenarios? Do you have teams or departments that serves as models for good or bad performance in these areas?

Here are four trouble indicators to watch for:

  • High employee turnover
  • Poor customer retention or declining repeat business
  • Slowing momentum or growth
  • An epidemic of missed goals or commitments, internally or externally

If your corporate culture is inhibiting business growth, what should you do?

Start by assessing the magnitude and type of problems you face, which could be minor or significant. Here are three ways you can quickly identify the nature of the issue you’re dealing with:

  1. First get the customer’s point of view. Talk with customers, review comments and feedback or listen in on sales and support calls. What is being said (or not said) that indicates where the problems are?
  2. Next, look at employee interactions. Are there major silos or conflicts within the organization? Do employees badmouth each other, disparage other departments, and place blame? This can be a real issue following an acquisition if the firms were fierce competitors prior to the merger. It also appears when managers don’t get along and pit their teams against each other. If you tink employees are reluctant to tell you what’s really going on try engaging a secret shopper or a consultant to shadow employees or interview them for objective feedback.
  3. Check for fluid information transfer. Are the only messages that get disseminated effectively coming from the rumor mill? Are there disconnects on fundamental things like strategic direction or key policies? Failure to share information and refusal to buy into company initiatives are signs that trust and communication have broken down.

Once you have handle on where you stand, you can start looking for solutions. These should be holistic, and not simply whitewash to mask a problem. Find and address the root cause, which could be overworked employees, conflicting policies, poor training or even problems with management.

The right solutions will be unique to your business, but you can take cues from companies that have succeeded. Exploring organizations that are performing well, and see how they are different from your business. What can you learn from them?

Skip the “Flavor of the Month”

Another success factor commitment to developing a customer-friendly culture. What I call the “flavor of the month” approach won’t work. Embrace a long-term strategy, letting efforts become ingrained in your business and absorbed into the culture.

Ideally, your efforts will begin with customer needs. That’s different that trying to please everyone. Focus on your market and your ideal customers. Ask, “How can we better serve our customers” and you’ll be headed in the right direction.

Other factors, like being persistently budget conscious, relentless pursuit of innovation or extremely operational efficient, should be addressed within the context of your customer relationships.

Ask your team how you can do these things in the service of your customers so that you can provide them with lower prices, creative new products or more efficient delivery.

Be transparent in your communications with your employees about the changes you’re making. You don’t need to say, “We’ve decided it’s time for a new culture,” that might backfire. Instead, let them know why the changes are happening in relation to your corporate strategy and objectives.

Sharing core values like, “We put customers first” or “Every employee owns our success,” can help provide context for change. Create a environment where the changes make perfect sense to employees, and they’ll be much more motivated to embrace them than if you take a “my way or the highway approach.”

To check your progress, go back to the three methods I provided to assess your situation. Are things improving? If not, why not? Maybe there’s an unintended consequence at work, or resistance from a key employee that needs to be addressed.

Stick with it. As your efforts take hold you’ll begin to see the benefits in the bottom line with reduced employee and customer turnover and improved satisfaction on all fronts.

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