Three Things Organizations Must Do to Build a Customer-First Culture

Root Inc. on January 8, 2013
Resources Customer Experience

A company’s customer experience can have an immediate, powerful, and potentially expensive impact on brand.

 Every interaction with a customer or prospective customer is an opportunity to succeed or fail in creating a brand fan or loyal advocate – or their antithesis.

With endless options for products and services, instant access to information, and the power to share their opinions more widely than ever, today the customer is almighty. Some companies have actively  embraced this new breed of buyer – supporting them with free shipping both ways, and 24/7 live customer service,  or crowd sourced product input to ensure the voice of the customer is being heard and embraced. But what else are these leaders doing to win the hearts and minds of consumers? What can we learn from their initiative, enterprising nature, and ultimately, their focus on creating customers for life?

This blog explores the changing customer landscape, what evolving consumer expectations mean for your business, and how your people, at every level and function of the organization, impact that customer experience. We look at the opportunities for consumer- driven companies in industries like retail, banking, airlines, and hospitality. Plus,we provide insight into what you can do to overcome hurdles and define a market-leading, customer-first culture, enable managers to act like owners, and create authentic customer experiences at the front line.

Understanding the scope of the challenge

It is more critical than ever for true customer-driven organizations to be aware of the customer experience they deliver. This is an enormous challenge for airlines, banks, hospitality providers, and retailers because they arguably touch every consumer on the planet.

As a result, the potential opportunity to earn business is huge, as is the possibility of upsetting one customer too many. Unfortunately, many companies are faced with organizational challenges that impede their ability to effectively seize these opportunities. Are you one of them? Now is the time to educate and arm yourself and your workforce to create customer-first cultures that will position you for the greatest, longest-term success.

Of course, the challenges will vary across the levels within your organization. Senior leaders have different challenges than managers, who have different needs than front line employees and individual contributors.

At the Senior Leader Level:

  • Corporate and field are not aligned on strategy and priorities. Senior leaders are creating too much noise and delivering too many disconnected initiatives to the field, causing confusion coming down from the
  • There are completely separate departments running stores, online, and contact center (or franchisees are running inconsistent experiences across restaurants or hotels). Leaders aren’t approaching it from the omni-channel perspective.
  • Leaders aren’t taking ownership for the whole business. As a result, they’re creating silos across

At the Manager Level

  • There is a manager capability gap – they are the linchpin for change and they aren’t leading or coaching as
    • Forty-four percent of the nearly 1,000 survey respondents said their supervisor strongly increased employee engagement, while 41 percent said supervisors strongly decreased employee engagement.
    • Thirty-nine percent of respondents indicated the amount of employee communication is a strong contributor to employee engagement, and 47 percent said it had a moderate influence.
  • Managers need to have the why, the what, and the how of the corporate strategy and brand or else they can’t successfully translate it for the front line. All of this impacts levels of employee engagement, and there are direct correlations between employee engagement and high levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty.

At the front line/individual-contributor level

  • Organizations don’t have a true understanding of the current reality in the field. Leaders don’t have their hands on the levers – so they don’t understand how to create change that makes sense to the front
  • Operational decisions have made the front line job harder, or they have negatively impacted the customer experience.
  • Organizations aren’t investing in their front line people as they do their external branding – they treat labor as an expense, not an investment.

Building an exceptional customer experience and bringing it to life across the organization

Creating a customer-first culture means something different to every organization based on their own priorities and differentiators. The key is to clearly define what elements make up your version of being “customer first,” and then adjust or create processes, operations, culture, and behaviors that make it a reality.

Building a customer-first culture requires different roles and responsibilities at the leader, manager, and front line levels of the organization. It’s critical that you scrutinize the barriers to success happening at each

level and tackle disconnects between them and between department functions. This can help ensure that the changes being implemented by leaders make sense

to your managers and your individual contributors because they have the context of the organization’s customer experience objectives and how that will play out in the market – which is necessary for you to succeed.

Senior leaders need to define the customer-first culture

Senior leaders need to build clarity and alignment around how their organization defines customer-centricity and loyalty. To do this, it’s paramount to examine the realities of what is happening in the marketplace/field and internally in the business to make better customer-focused decisions that the front line can execute. Once you  have  consensus  about your priorities as an organization, you can design and

augment processes with the front line in mind – clearing and eliminating the silos between stores, online/.com presences, and contact centers, enabling everyone to deliver a consistent customer experience. Finally, be sure to invest in developing the skills and knowledge of your managers and the front line to arm them with the tools they need to deliver on your customer-first culture.

Here’s how:

  • Identify the barriers inhibiting a customer-first culture and whether or not they vary by store, hotel, or region. Define your desired  culture,  specifying “how we work together” to deliver a great customer experience.
  • Develop a “story” with big-picture visuals that helps the whole organization better understand the brand promise and that illustrates the optimal customer experience and people’s delivery roles within that experience.
  • Address the barriers between functions by making operational, process, or behavior changes, and ensure each prioritizes the
  • Share what’s working, be transparent about organizational challenges, and reinforce best practices for moving

Managers need to act as owners

Do you understand what the best managers do to engage their teams and drive results? Help your managers be successful by investing in the areas  that drive their performance and allow them to build leadership capabilities:

  • Knowing their role
  • Understanding the customer-focused strategy as it relates to your brand
  • Connecting their team to that strategy, and driving results. These are not capabilities you can expect them to know You must lead discussions and provide examples of what this looks like for them to emulate, practice, and fine tune.

Inspiring your managers to act as owners empowers them to make good decisions that support the strategic customer-first priorities of your business. Here’s how:


  •  Ensure people have the leadership and coaching skills they need to act as
  • Identify and communicate “bright spots” of what the best managers are doing to drive the customer and employee
  • Showcase what your best managers are doing and how others can adopt and emulate those same
  • Underscore the importance of leadership and manager transparency around key measures and drive ownership of the results of the entire team with tools like Customer Experience
  • Develop guides for fostering ongoing conversations about the journey to becoming a customer-first organization.
  • Implement feedback loops so managers can provide insight on how well initiatives are working and ways to optimize the customer

When organizations focus on creating a customer-first culture, empowering managers, giving front line guidance, and being successful, they can see powerful results.

Individual contributors need to create authentic customer experiences

Does your front line understand your brand promise? Are they exhibiting the behaviors that underscore your customer-first culture?

It’s imperative to connect everyone to the strategy – let them know they can personally make a difference every time they interact with a customer, no matter their title, shift, or location. Consistency is key. As  new initiatives (new sales or promotions, new product rollouts, changes in how customers are greeted) are handed down to the front line, leaders must help  them prioritize where they should focus their efforts.

Delivering an authentic experience in which the individual embodies the customer-first culture makes the biggest impact on customer loyalty.

Here’s how:

  • Make sure every individual contributor has the skills and knowledge needed to deliver on the customer- first Inspire people to see what is possible.
  • Engage employees in the company’s big-picture approach to customer experience, helping them understand their roles with visual tools. Build employees’ sales and service skills, including point of sale, merchandising, and others that apply to your
  • Ensure employees have easy references  and tools for delivering on their jobs. Set clear service standards and methods to guide employees about making trade offs and decisions.
  • Prepare them to anticipate customer needs in order to exceed


You only get one chance to make a great first impression. This is never truer than with regard to your customers’ experiences with your business.   Creating a customer-first culture that is embodied across your entire organization makes all the difference in how your brand is perceived  and  applauded.  The  keys are to engage employees at every level in the culture of being customer first, provide the big-picture vision to everyone, and help them recognize the behaviors, processes, and operations that will enable them to execute that vision.

Finding the right partner to guide you through the process can help. Consider the value of augmenting your internal skills with expertise from an independent, seasoned third-party who can extract the core of what being customer first means to your specific organization and support your journey with knowledge and tools.

Take the first step and set the momentum for your organization to win customers for life.

Data sources include: Capgemini World Retail Banking Report, Eastern Michigan University, World Travel & Tourism Council, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Commerce Department, IABC Report, Temkin Group, Root client results.

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