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You can’t talk your way out of a situation you behaved your way into.

In brilliantly-performing organisations, the board cares about customer satisfaction and everyone is responsible for it.

Creating a world-class C-Sat culture

Great customer satisfaction doesn’t just happen spontaneously. It emerges from a corporate culture that prioritises the customer’s experience in all aspects of the business. That culture must be embraced by all members of an organisation, but it is nurtured and driven from the top.

Defining the characteristics of a great customer service culture can be a little like trying to describe great art: the customer might be hard pressed to explain it, but they certainly know it when they encounter it.

Identifying who has organisational responsibility for customer satisfaction, or C-Sat, can seem almost as difficult. The easy answer is that everyone in the business is responsible. The more nuanced response is that it starts at the top and emerges from the values and philosophy of the board and the senior management.

Jo Causon, CEO of the Institute of Customer Service, believes that the board and the CEO are ultimately responsible for the quality of customer experience in any organisation: “A culture of customer experience is definitely led from the top. There is a role for a Customer Experience Director, but not if that means that nobody else cares about it. In brilliantly-performing organisations, the board cares about it and everyone is responsible for it. Customer satisfaction data is considered just as important as financial data.”

The best companies don’t just treat it as an add on, she stresses. “Customer experience is embedded through the layers of an organisation in such a way that everybody understands that it is important and everyone has a stake in it. And I don’t necessarily mean that in terms of a financial stake. For employees, it’s about being engaged; they feel they are listened to, asked for their opinion and it’s acted on.”

Building the culture

There are several stages required to create this leadership: first the senior team articulates the strategy of customer-centricity. Then they communicate it. They hire people with the right attitudes and mindsets and they train them. They invest in channels and customer data capture. And they empower everyone and reward them for delivering great customer experience.

It is perhaps easier to appreciate this responsibility when we recognise its absence. The opposite of a customer-centric culture is an operational culture, a product-culture or a sales-driven culture. The mis-selling scandals in the financial services market were down to sales-driven cultures that put targets, rather than people, first.

Customer vs product

The profile of an operational or product-driven culture highlights the contrast with customer-centric cultures and reveals the extent to which all members of an organisation have a vital role to play in the holistic customer experience.

When employees are hidebound by rules, targets and policies rather than guidelines and values, they need their line manager’s permission to do anything that deviates from the rule book. That prevents the empathetic, customer-centric approach as fear of doing something wrong prevails over the joy of doing something right. Customer-centric companies see the customer’s experience as the core role of everyone in the organisation whereas the sales-driven culture sees customer service as a departmental silo, separate from the core business.

That is partly down to hiring policies that concentrate on technical skills or competences rather than people with personalities and values that match those of the organisation. Happy and engaged employees who understand, share and empathise with the core values of the organisation deliver much better experiences than those employees in a culture governed by systems, processes and targets.

Hiring the right people, with the right attitudes and mindset, is important. Empathy is a vital characteristic – the ability to identify a customer’s emotional need, grasp what lies behind it and understand how to respond effectively.

The reputational nosedive

Reputational and financial damage can often result from business cultures that are not customer-centric. Senior management teams that prioritise sales and targets over customer experience, and staff who do not act with empathy, can rapidly undermine a business.

However, those organisations with genuine customer-centric cultures reap the benefits on a daily basis. Mailchimp, the Atlanta-based email marketing group is a great example of a company whose reputation and growth stems largely from embedding the customer experience at the heart of its leadership team. Not only does Mailchimp have a Chief Customer Officer, one of the company’s two co-founders no less, but it complements this with a Chief Culture Officer.

From its launch in 2001, MailChimp has focused on great customer experience. That approach has seen the company, still privately owned by its founders, grow to its current level of over half a billion dollars in annual revenues and more than 800 employees. It has 18 million customers and is adding them at the rate of 14,000 a day.

According to Ben Chestnut, co-founder and CEO, the company’s motto is “listen hard, change fast”. He expresses this strategy simply and clearly: “We said ‘let’s just focus on our customers’. I think that sets us free.”

Rewarding behaviour

Ensuring that incentives are matched to desired behaviours is an important part of creating great customer experience. Cultures that reward the meeting of sales or volume targets will find that employees pursue the numbers rather than seeking to deliver world-class experiences.

Human resources teams must develop rewards that are aligned to making the customer’s experience better and more memorable. When employees have a stake, it transforms the business. That was the insight of the management at the John Lewis Partnership in the 1920s. The retailer continues to rank near the top of customer satisfaction charts to this day.

We all recognise a customer-centric organisation when we encounter one. It’s one where every process is designed entirely with customer satisfaction in mind. That philosophy is internalised and acted on by every member of the organisation.

It starts with the leadership team but it percolates through the organisation. Employees are empowered to act in the best interests of customers and are given the confidence and support to always put the customer first.

Openness and authenticity are now critical to sustaining brand loyalty.

The best C-Sat companies are raising their game not only to meet but to exceed their customers’ higher expectations.