Can you share an example of a customer-centric executive who “walks the talk”?


Share on LinkedIn

In my recent customer-centric benchmark study, one attribute that stood out in better-performing companies was “managers setting a good example.”

Can you share a brief example of an executive that you’ve seen do a good job leading by example? In other words, showing through their behavior that being “customer-centric” is important to the organization. (Hint: giving speeches is not what I’m looking for!)


  1. My favorite example is something I’ve written about a number of times and included in my books. I just copied this from one of my articles.

    “I have a favorite story to illustrate this point. Walt Disney used to walk through Disneyland to observe how.. If he happened to see a piece of paper on the ground, he would stoop down to pick it up. He called this Stooping to Excellence. He knew that as he walked through the park, all of the employees were watching him. He had to demonstrate excellence. He had to demonstrate that he wasn’t beyond picking up trash off of the ground. If he didn’t pick it up, he was effectively giving permission to all of the other Disney employees, known as cast members, to walk past the trash. However, as mentioned, you don’t need the title to be a leader, especially when it comes to customer service and excellence. Everyone can be the role model that others aspire to. What behaviors are you exhibiting that others would admire and want to emulate?”

  2. The best example that comes to my mind is Jeff Bezos, who is continuously fending attacks of the stock speculators demanding higher earnings per share. Every quarter he explains to the “investment” community that Amazon mission is to discover new and better ways to improve experience of its customers, and that requires company to continue its investment into new products and services – not to provide speculators with quarterly arbitrage opportunities. This is a difficult fight, and he keeps fighting against “market” expectations. That is the customer-centric leadership IMHO.

  3. Here are a couple.

    Southwest Airlines focuses on a fun flying experience. On Halloween, the CEO Gary Kelly came as Kiss. Goggle his name, go to images and check him out.

    Tony Hsieh at Zappo’s focuses on being customer-centric and, at busy times, he works in the call center on the phone.

  4. While it’s incomplete to be looking from an outside-in perspective at how Whole Foods, and Mackey, act on an everyday basis, there’s lots of anecdotal material on his application of team management, overall and on a store level, plus innovation, store uniqueness, and quality to achieve customer-centricity

    He’s walking the talk, the essence of great leadership. As noted above, one demonstration of this is his approach to executive salaries, which definitely sends a message to associates. Also, with respect to customer complaint handling, Whole Foods has established a unique social media network: Mackey is also among a small minority of corporate leaders who regularly interface with customers through blogs. Here’s a paragraph about what he does from an Ogilvy PR article:

    “Some companies do it differently. Dell has thousands of employee bloggers. Some are sanctioned, some just allowed. They have a blogging policy (every company should have a blogging policy even if your policy is to not allow employee blogs). They do this to establish a strong relationship with the developer community and final customers. John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, and Bob Lutz, Vice Chairman of GM, do it to make a connection between the public and company leadership. In each case, companies are using these mediums to build trust through a deeper level of engagement (time spent, interactions, dialogue, etc.). It is not like traditional marketing which includes as many “impressions” as possible and a good reach and frequency numbers.”

  5. One such leader is HS Bawa, who just retired as Managing Director of Zuari Industries. I was their consultant and always noticed how well Mr Bawa responded to employees, and added value to them. He was close to customers in the field and visited them and with suppliers. They all loved him. However, he did not have a formal customer centric program, and left it up to the various departments to do their things. These people did not change.

    At Tata Agri Inputs, the then CEO Kapil Mehan recognised that the differentiator was customer centricity. After conducting a Customer Value Added study, Tata was able to understand what motivated farmers to buy from them. The product had little importance as it was a commodity. It was the image of the company and the relationship with it which drove farmers to buy the Tata Brand.

    To formalise this Tata set up Customer Circles, and in West Bengal alone they had 18 customer circles, where the front line focused on what would make customers more happy and prevent unhappiness. Tata was the undisputed leader in this market.

    Leaders set a good example by visiting customers, creating value for employees and rewarding customer centric behaviour. More is given in my book Total Customer Value Management

  6. A truly customer-centric business leader goes beyond making a few nice speeches and reviewing results. They authorize necessary resources, actively participate in action planning, insist on support from other company leaders, and monitor progress to assure that customer initiatives don’t lose momentum.

    A great example of this is Steve Meyer, CEO of Welch Allyn. You might remember him as one of the keynote speakers at our CX Summit last May in Scottsdale. Steve was the driving force behind Welch Allyn’s re-energized CX initiative. He allocated additional resources, assigned key leadership, actively participates in action planning, demands involvement from other company leaders, and insists that customer insights are factored into decisions across the organization.

    View his presentation (Prezi format):

  7. Leaders setting a good example is absolutely essential, since culture is a group’s ways of thinking and doing.

    My favorite story comes from SunTrust. Here is an excerpt from my article:

    “People started asking in meetings: Do we believe X because we’ve been bankers for Y years, or because clients told us?” VanDeVelde continues: “As our chief marketing officer and our head of cross-channel strategy began doing that all the time, it became common practice throughout our company. Then you begin to seek it and call people on it when they don’t. So we have a culture where we’re trying to put the customer in the center of our decisions.”

    I think that kind of behavior among leaders is the best way to encourage customer-centered thinking and doing as a way of life for everyone in the company.

  8. My favourite example of a business leader leading by example in the UK is a chap called Jens Hofma. Jens is the UK CEO of Pizza Hut. Jens decided when he took over the role that the best way for him to develop the authority to lead his business was to understand it from the eyes of both his employees and his customers. Jens therefore decided that one day every week he would work as a member of the waiting staff in his restaurant in Oxford Street. Jens has made a number of changes to both working conditions and practices and the customer experience as a result of what he has learned and observed.

    Jens is an extremely popular leader of his business – not surprising!! There are painfully few business leaders who want to ever meet a customer, let alone work as an employee on a regular basis. I think Jens is an inspiration to others and wworthy of mention in your article.

    You can read more about him here:

  9. I look forward to the day when I come across a Top that actually embodies-enacts and thus inspires customer-centric behaviour. To date, I have not come across / worked with one. It occurs to me that these kind of folks are rare – as rare the number of companies that are genuinely customer-centric.

    What would I look for, if I was determine whether a Top was open to showing up as customer-centric? This:

    1. When was the last time that this Top actually spent time listening to, talking with, customers face to face? How often does has this happened? When did this happen? Is there an structure in place to keep this practice in existence? Has this practice cascaded down to the people who report directly into this Top?

    2. When was the last time this Top did Undercover Boss? When did this Top actually leave the comfort of his office and work on the frontline: in the store, in the call-centre, as part of the field service team, take part in a sales (b2B) pitch? How often has this happened in the past? When? What actions have been taken as a result of this experience on the front lines? What structure is in place that this practice continues regularly? Has this practice cascaded down to the direct reports?

    3. What actions have been taken to clean up marketing such that the marketing folks do not do what they do by default: lie to customers? What actions have been taken to clean up Sales so that sales do not lie/mislead to win customers?

    4. What actions have been taken in relation to those who work in the Customer Services function? Has more money been put into this function and the people that work in it? Has the Customer Services function been brought back in-house? What has been done to provide a career path from Customer Service to other functions? What say does Customer Service have in the actions taken by Marketing, Sales, Logistics, Finance? Is the cost of the Customer Services function recharged back to the functions that drive demand into the call-centre? What technology has been taken out that gets in the way of creating a human relationship with customers?

    5. What decisions have been made, what actions have been taken where profit was sacrificed in order to do the right things by the Customer? When was the last time this happened? What did it cost the company? How many times has this occurred in the past say five years?

    6. Is there a direct line between this Top and customers? Can customers get online and share experiences with this Top? Does this Top talk to customers through social media e.g. blog? Does this Top make public commitments, to customers, using social media on what changes will be made, when?

    7. When was the last time that this Top walked in the shoes of the customer, as that customer? How often does this happen? What changes have been made?

  10. I was inspired by a customer experience leader who used Net Promoter Score to assess which people and departments in her own organization were promoters and detractors. She created a plan to help the promoters become more involved and move the detractors to advocacy. It was a wonderful way to introduce the idea of a strategic customer experience initiative.

  11. Questions and observations for Jeannie –

    1. How/why is the use of a NPS recommendation metric with employees, giving them a Promoter or Detractor label, inspirational? Is the metric based on recommendation of the company as a place to be employed? Is the metric based on recommendation of the company’s products and service? Something else?

    2. Advocacy is an extremely different concept than recommendation. Since employee advocacy, which I’d define as ambassadorship ( is, at best, only somewhat influenced by level of recommendation, how did a plan for leveraging an NPS-type metric with low and high performers increase employees’ provision of customer value and better experiences?

    3. What, if anything, was done with employees in the middle, who could ‘swing up’ to become Promoters or ‘swing down’ to become Detractors?

  12. is the NPS effective mode of evaluating your internal customer satisfaction score . I am of the opinion that with different business function and people dependency , would one get the right feedback and slot in terms of Promoter and Detractors.

  13. I had the privilege of working with a leader who daily did small things that lead by example.

    One example was each day he arrived early and emptied the dishwasher in the kitchen closest to his office. In addition to leading by example, he also created an environment where people had the opportunity to interact with him outside his traditional work space/meeting.

    Worthy of note, when I sent him a copy of the post I had written, his response was somewhat bemused and he indicated he wished he was as smart as I had described him. Again demonstrating to me he was truly leading by example because this authentic behaviour was simply who he was — as opposed to strategically thinking about how a specific action would impact the people around him.

    In my opinion, it is often the small things, collectively, that create the greatest example. You can read the full story in the following post:

  14. My favorite example is the CEO of TinTri. He is an example of the courage it takes to be walk the walk. Here’s an excerpt from a recent article:

    Klein walks the talk in ways that few CEO are brave enough to. Aside from an astonishing level of transparency about the business with customers and employees, management enforces a ‘No Jerk Policy’. Repeated violations of the following ten rules and you’re out the door no matter how much of wunderkind you are:

    1. Intimidation
    2. Bullying
    3. Assigning Blame
    4. Taking Undeserved Credit
    5. Overly Negative
    6. Subordinating Company Interests to Individual, Group, Function, etc.
    7. Withholding Critical Information for Political Reasons
    8. Say “No” Instead of “How Can I Help?”
    9. Being Hypocritical
    10. Overly Complicating Things That Inhibit Progress

    The policy exists for good reason because customers have direct access to anyone in the organization and the two groups are frequently brought together in a variety of forums.

  15. While I like the fact that many people have written about the few “celebrity CEOs” who have become famous, (Walt Disney, Tony Hsieh, Herb Kelleher, Jeff Bezos,) what really troubled me is that there are so few that I can think of – and yes, that includes most of my clients over the last 25 years. Maz’s 7 simple questions left me wondering “How hard can it be to show commitment to one’s customers?”

    Of course, I can probably list dozens of small business owners that walk the talk, but the moment shareholders and investment companies get involved, all customer-driven activity seems to fly out the window (with some rare exceptions.) Will 2015 be the year when CEO’s finally understand that their most important priority will be their customers and their team, and that there is a brilliant ROI on all customer management activity? Some will, most won’t – and the latter will pay the price.

  16. There is a small business owner who, like Stew Leonard and a few others, has become an inspiration to any executive in any company. He is Chris Zane owner of Zane’s Cycles in Connecticut, whom I’m fortunate to call a colleague. For some insights on how Chris sets examples for his employees, and the long-term value he provides for customers, I’d encourage everyone to read his book:

  17. This is a fascinating conversation and the various opinions are very illuminating. I agree that there are many celebrity CEO’s who we all laud. I’m also interested in what the people who are actually doing the work, after they are inspired by their Luminous Leader actually do. How do they translate Walt’s picking up paper, Bill’s dishwasher emptier, Jen’s work as an employee days? It seems that inspiration apart, there are the myriad things that take place and are installed at the operational level which extend from the idea that things need to change. Do we as advisors to our clients look for these and champion the followers as well as those being followed?

    It prompted me to think, and therefore ask “What are the Top 10 CX delivery businesses globally, and other than brand mystique, how did you decide they were the ones?” I’m following on from the comments about NPS and it’s challenges and wonder how we, as a group of CX observers would evaluate and determine our winners. Customer Effort Score, NPS, Margin per sq ft, other customer sat stat?

    I’ve asked a lot more than I’ve answered. It’s simply because I have been pondering the question of how any business decides that it’s CX is impactful, effective and ultimately profitable. Looking forward to any responses with great interest.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here