You may not be a musician, but you have probably heard of, or even seen, a mixing desk. This is a device with lots of controls that slide up and down—sliders—that takes sound sources from different instruments and vocals and mixes them "down" to the preferred balance for a recording. Each slider controls one part of the sound and is pushed up or down by the sound engineer.
The changes produced by each slider are very subtle and sometimes noticeable only to the practiced ear. It’s always a blend of changes that moves the sound. No one in the business of creating music would expect the overall sound to change fundamentally by moving just one slider. Yet, that’s just what we do expect in business.
We manage businesses in a very linear way and expect wholesale progress to come from small, often un-connected changes to the way we manage individual components of the business. One of these is culture. If I had a dollar for every time a "culture change program" was expected to change the way an organization engaged with its customers and drive increased profitability, I’d be able to retire—in style.
Becoming customer-centric is about changing all the components of the customer experience and aligning them around a target to create consistency and harmony. Moving one slider in isolation to the others can actually make the sound worse. In the same way, changing one aspect of the customer engagement without changing the related ones can aggravate the customer experience and damage loyalty and create internal tension, as people try to "join up the dots" to make it work for customers.
Culture is certainly an important, if not vital, component of customer-centricity. But culture, itself, has many components, each of which is connected to other aspects of the customer experience, such as processes, policies, data and metrics. Consider those aspects of culture that support an organization becoming customer-centric at every level.
The company must be really committed to being customer-centric, and executives must lead by example. Employees need to feel entrepreneurial, that they can make real decisions regarding customers; drive improvements to processes and polices to increase both customer satisfaction and retention; and generally take risks without fear of blame if things don’t work out quite right. In return, executives must seek out and listen to the opinions of their frontline people as well as provide the framework for decision-making authority and the governance of change by setting guardrails to protect the company and the employees.
The organizational structure, itself, defines the company. An executive for Sitel, a customer service outsourcing company in India, told me: "My customer is committed to customer satisfaction. As a result, I have inverted our organization structure."
He viewed frontline people as "the most important people," calling them "the only ones who can effect customer satisfaction," given that only they speak with customers on a day-to-day basis. The frontline people knew when to delegate to managers customer-affecting issues they cannot resolve, themselves. Those managers, in turn, knew when to delegate issues to him.
"I am at the bottom of the company and I deal with issues that no one else can resolve, but I make sure that whatever stopped the resolution process happening nearer the customer is changed."
In a customer-centric organization, managers are leaders, and their primary roles are to (1) assist the executive team in communicating the direction; (2) walk the talk by coaching and facilitating their operations to constantly improve business processes; (3) delegate responsibility, while supporting wherever possible; and (4) work closely with managers across the organization to ensure that horizontal integration becomes a reality.
Training doesn’t really exist in customer-centric companies; it is all about the development of individual skills to maximize the impact frontline people can have on the customer experience.
Frontline team leaders
As the process of leading cascades down the organization (or up, if you adopt the Sitel model), the role of the frontline team leader is just that, to lead the team in the battle for customer satisfaction and loyalty. The team leader is the planner, the quartermaster and the cheerleader all rolled into one. This person keeps the team together, focusing, supporting, coaching, facilitating wherever required.
At some level, a customer-centric company may not even require team leaders, as the team can and should begin to manage itself. Can you imagine a manager or executive having as the primary objective the elimination of his or her role? If not, perhaps you are not customer-centric enough.
I have seen the impact that executive leadership, empowering managers and self-managing frontline teams can have on both the customers and the employees.
In June 1996, after I had joined Cellnet, a U.K. cellular network operator, as customer care director, I met Richard Brimble, BT Mobile’s enigmatic customer care manager. He didn’t talk about what his people did. He was more concerned with how they did it. He enthusiastically explained his philosophy on call center operations: an emotional commitment to helping agents become better people through valuing and trusting them, which in turn led them to value and trust each other and gave them self-respect.
He believed passionately in self-managing teams. He talked excitedly about metrics and how poor measures created the wrong behavior, not just for the customer but also for the agents and the company. He waxed lyrically about frontline teams continuously driving improvements to customer processes and policies using feedback from customers. He showed me the "chill-out" areas where his teams could relax after the tension of dealing with customer queries.
Later that year, Brimble invited me to his team’s customer service awards night. The atmosphere was electric, as team after team and individual after individual went up for their awards. The emotion in the room was off any scale I had experienced, and I got completely caught up in it. It was a defining moment for me.
Now if that’s the impact a real customer-centric culture can have on me, imagine what it can do for the customers.