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In this new world of work, how can we possibly create and sustain a high-performing and cohesive culture when workers are working both remotely and on-site, come from different generations and backgrounds and have different employment relationships?

In this environment, and particularly with the transparency that social media and sites such as Glassdoor.ca and Yelp.ca provide, a strong culture is more important than ever – customers need to know what you stand for – and this needs to be palpable through your workers. The only way to create this alignment and consistency is through a customer-centric culture.

Management consultancy Senn Delaney’s Culture Continuum rates companies from Level 0 (Complacent) to 5 (Continuous) and finds a clear link to return on investment (ROI) when going from Level 2 (Committed) to Level 3 (Catalyzed). However, when companies evolve to Level 4 (Customer-centric), employees change proactively to reflect culture – customers feel the culture, and the organization experiences higher productivity, speed and improvement in customer engagement and satisfaction scores. The central idea in Level 4 organizations is “Our employee’s experience is our customer’s experience.” In other words, the customer experience will never surpass the workers’ experience.

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Design-thinking approach

In customer-centric organizations, problems are solved with the customer’s need at the centre, often referred to as a “design-thinking” approach. A common challenge is determining who the customer is. For many organizations, “internal customers” have been defined as departments receiving other departments’ work product (e.g., the sales team as an internal customer of the marketing team). But Dev Patnaik of the Jump Associates consultancy argues this is a Band-aid solution for organizations that are not truly customer-centric – in truly customer-centric organizations, multifunctional teams work together as opposed to “for one another.”

Ingraining customer-centricity in the company’s DNA

Companies that get customer-centricity right live and breathe customer experience – so much so that it pervades the worker experience as well.

Mr. Patnaik says “it is not enough to hire your customers” – both because there is an increased risk of groupthink and because customers are more and more diverse, and so too must be your work force. Instead, create an environment where workers have no choice but to focus on the customer in every decision point and interaction. For example, at Nike, the physical workplace is built to inspire connection with customers – to promote “widespread empathy”: climbing walls, running tracks and conference rooms named for sports icons. At Harley Davidson, “riders” get preferred parking spots with a “motorcycles only, no cages [Harley’s term for cars]” sign in its employee parking lot. This enables workers to make better decisions quicker because “we are them and they are us.”

In order to sustain a customer-centric culture, it is best to avoid tying culture to a one-time event – in order to be scalable and sustainable, behaviours need to be reinforced over time through performance, learning and development experiences, incentives, appreciation and recognition. As Mr. Patnaik says, “Make it easy, make it experiential, make it everyday.”

Why customer-centric culture?

Having a customer-centric culture translates to more clarity and value for the customer, as all workers, regardless of location or employment type, operate with the same macro-objectives.

When teams operate with the end customer in mind, customers are more likely to feel listened to, well taken care of and, as a result, become more loyal and valuable – a win-win. So what’s getting in the way of all organizations operating in a customer-centric way? Siloed (and often conflicting) goals, incentives and profit and loss statements, as well as short-term time and shareholder pressures.

Committing to a customer-centric culture means trusting that the focus on the customer will empower employees, leading to better decisions and financial results over the longer term. That’s not to say that organizations should be customer-centric at all cost – there are trade-offs that need to be considered at each juncture – and companies need to have discipline to balance holistic and transactional customer-centricity (short-term pain for longer-term gain).

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But, given the competitive landscape in which we are operating, companies that don’t focus on creating a customer-centric culture risk not having customers at all.

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