CX Leadership: Making Customer Centricity Sticky


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Image: iStock. Copy Alex Allwood

This morning started like most. Part of my AM ritual is reading the latest CX news and views. A story on Deloitte’s CMO Survey caught my eye; it revealed that “expenditure on CX has leapt by a huge 71% over the last three years and now makes up 15.2% of organisations’ total marketing budgets compared with 8.9% in 2017.”

On the flipside, despite millions being poured into CX resourcing and effort, Christine Moorman, a marketing professor at Fuqua and director of the CMO Survey, says, “Many organisations are failing to get as much out of their CX expenditure as they should.”

Forrester’s most recent CX Index confirm this too. Most noticeably there was a decline in CX performance for both businesses and their customers, with 81% of brand scores stagnated; most industry front-runners were repeats.

Moorman continues, “They also often forget the importance of a customer-focused culture as an essential ingredient in getting the entire company to focus on creating and delivering an outstanding customer experience.”

Customer centricity at work

Customer-centric cultures put their customers’ needs at the centre of their thinking, problem solving and decision making. They create norms, rituals, values and ways-to-do-things that create everyday employee behaviours that in turn deliver their customer cause or vision.

Airbnb’s is an example of a customer-centric culture. Following founder and CEO Brian Chesky’s lead, a customer mindset and set of behaviours have been embedded into the fabric of their culture and this has delivered greater value for customers and the business.

Customer stories are the heart the company’s culture and strategy, enabling a whole-of-business approach to seeing new possibilities, solving problems and building solutions.

Airbnb began their transformation by mapping their customer stories; seeing their customers’ world from their customers’ perspective and using customer journey frameworks to deepen customer understanding and imagine new experiences.

The team then shared these journeys with the wider business, asking them how their work impacted the customer story. This gave employees customer problems to focus on, instead of to-do lists, helping them to see their work through a new, customer-centric lens.

Customer-centric transformation starts here

In my new book, Customer Empathy: A radical intervention in customer experience management and design, I deep dive into the customer-centric transformation of Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic is renowned for their excellence in patient outcomes and highly regarded for their world-class health care facilities.

This story starts with Dr. Toby Cosgrove, esteemed heart surgeon and CEO of Cleveland Clinic, addressing Harvard Business School students. Dr. Cosgrove was asked a single question that would be the start of how Cleveland Clinic, one of the largest medical centre groups in the US, with 10 hospitals, 19 medical centres and 40,000+ staff, would in future serve their customers.

The student asked, “Dr. Cosgrove, do you teach empathy at Cleveland Clinic?”

Fast forward, and Dr. Cosgrove’s thoughts turned to the question – what if medicine was defined from the patient’s perspective, what if patient care was designed from patient experience, and what would this mean for how hospitals were organised and medical services delivered.

Ultimately he decided he didn’t just want to reorganise, he wanted to redesign medicine—breaking down the specialist silos and challenging long held medical conventions with a new model; an operating model and that was customer-centric.

How Cleveland Clinic made customer centricity sticky

Through listening to patient / doctor conversations he reimagined the distinction between surgeons and physicians; arguing that patients did not ask for particular specialists but instead described their symptoms and how these made them feel.

In a controversial move, he then set to work on reorganising departments from areas of specialty to Institutes, abolishing, for example, the departments of medicine and surgery, and creating multi-disciplinary, patient-aligned Institutes – rewiring the entire business around patient journeys.

And he didn’t stop there. Cosgrove pushed for change in areas that had been sacrosanct; re-engineering doctors’ remuneration to ensure better patient co-operation between departments and minimising resource duplication in the treatment of patients.

Customer empathy is the glue that makes customer centricity sticky

In building a customer-centric culture, organisations need to build the essential customer experience capabilities to effect organisation-wide change. Customer empathy is understanding your customer’s point of view, feeling what they’re experiencing and considering this in your decisions.

Customer empathy skills are much like other skills—learnable, and when intentionally practised, can become a part of an employee’s day-to-day behaviour. In fact, many customer experience practices can be modified to incorporate building customer empathy skills.

Switching on empathy ability, learning and developing customer empathy skills and intentionally practising helps employees improve their customer centricity.

Through practising empathetic listening, being curious and asking questions, remaining open minded and free from judgment and sharing our understanding, we develop the skills that help strengthen our empathy ability.

Using customer empathy nudges

In my CX consulting I use customer empathy ‘nudges’. Nudges are small and subtle prompts that can inspire behavioural change. Start by asking ‘What Would Our Customers Think?’ or ‘How Would This Make Our Customers Feel?’ in your huddles, WIP sessions and team meetings. This simple question is a customer-centric game changer.

All too often, conventional business-biased behaviours overwhelm the process of solving customer problems. This question is a decision making ritual that asks meeting participants around the decision making table to step into the customer’s shoes and consider how their thinking or the team’s ideas will impact the customer’s experience.

What about Cleveland Clinic?

Switching on customer empathy and strengthening these skills equates to good business practice. When reimagining the provision of health care, Dr. Cosgrove hadn’t forgotten that Harvard Business School moment when a student asked if empathy was taught at Cleveland Clinic—this was the catalyst for having the organisation’s 43,000 staff trained in patient empathy.

Making customer centricity sticky isn’t difficult. We just need to start by incorporating customer empathy skills into current CX practices. This can include customer perspective taking using customer journeys and storytelling, promoting customer listening and using empathy nudges to put customers’ needs at the centre of our business thinking, problem solving and decision making.



Alex Allwood
My focus is connecting customer and culture to empower customer-centric growth; fostering a culture of customer centricity, building team capability and helping transform customer experiences. With a 20 year track record in leadership, operations and marketing, my strength is developing customer experience strategy: customer understanding and empathy, experience vision and guiding principles and the customer narrative. I am the principal of the CX consultancy, All Work Together; authored the books, Customer Empathy (2019) and Customer Experience is the Brand (2015).


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