CEOs Set the Tone for Customer Experience


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About one year ago, after a long and harrowing day on delays, cancellations, and re-routing, Delta passenger Jessie Frank was on her way to pick up her 12-year-old Type I Diabetic daughter from summer camp. Jessie learned with despair that she was eighth on the standby list with no available seats showing for the final leg of her trip.

Richard Anderson

Delta Airlines CEO Richard Anderson

Suddenly, a familiar face showed up, helped her on the plane, and loaded her bags in the overhead compartment. This man was apparently a Delta employee who gave up his seat to instead sit on the uncomfortable jump seat to Atlanta so Jessie could pick up her daughter. The good Samaritan was none other than Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta (full story here).

That’s what great customer experience is all about. The CEO sets the tone for the organization. He sets the culture through his or her actions (or inactions). If the leader doesn’t believe in and actually live great customer experience, how can he or she expect the firm’s employees to? They won’t. People are smart; they can figure out if a CEO and senior management are really serious about customer experience or just paying lip service. Employees will know it, and so will their customers.

In an article last year, Mark Hurd, president of Oracle, said CEOs must become customer-experience evangelists. Unfortunately, he said, many systems are old and disconnected, and functional areas functioning in silos can stymie good experiences. I think the real question is why? The technology exists and is in place. There is no need for uncoordinated functional silos in an organization that is focused on the customer.

I think the real reasons that so many companies suffer from this problem are culture and priority. First, there must be a sincere and authentic belief. Second, there must be a concerted effort and investment in co-creating a great customer experience. We must not only focus on “saves” like Mr. Anderson did, but anticipate when failures will happen before they do. Moreover, running a company by just avoiding people being angry is not a bad goal, but that is just fulfilling an expectation they have. Are you excited about your cell phone carrier when you can place a call? No, but are pretty angry when you can’t.

Going the next step, doing something memorable that delights customers—that’s the key. Technology will help enable this, but fundamentally it comes down to people and the will of the CEO and Board to support Customer Experience as the true competitive differentiator that it really is.


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