How can you convince your senior leadership to invest more in customer experience?

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Over the years, I’ve encountered many CX experts who struggled with convincing their senior leadership to invest more in customer experience. We all know that many company leaders say that the “customer comes first”, but at the end of the day, they are unfortunately often a lot more worried about tapping into new markets, sales, talent management or process optimalization. That’s understandable, but all of these things are part of a closed circle with the customer at the center and if that “heart” is not beating properly, all the rest will collapse too. I have to admit that I was surprised to read that – according to a Pega Systems study – only 35% of businesses have a C-level sponsor for CX and in 36% of companies, it’s led at the director level or below. It’s safe to say that we need to upgrade this number.

So how can you convince your leadership to invest more in CX?

That’s what I wanted to tackle in today’s piece. Basically, there are two ways to approach the challenge: one rational and one emotional.

I think that most people would instinctively gravitate towards the rational way: they assemble an Excel sheet with quantitative data to explain that if management invests in X and Y, the churn rate will decrease by X percent. I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of that approach.

All too often, senior leaders are exposed to customers through PowerPoint presentations with statistical data, like “only 65% of our customers are happy”. But numbers never tell the whole story. They are obviously useful, but they also dehumanize your customers. They become a statistic, an almost abstract idea in the minds of leadership and that’s not how you involve them in investing in ways to make the customer happy.

I’m a much bigger fan of the more emotional way: take your senior leadership on a “safari”. What I mean by that is that you bring them really close to the end customer. The good news is that there are multiple methods to achieve this. You could organize breakfast seminars where top leaders sit together with real customers. You can take your leadership on events with customers. They could work in customer service for a day or just listen into phone calls.

If they’re the extreme type – like the fantastic Duncan Wardle who used to be the Head of Innovation and Creativity at Disney for many years – they could even go “live” with their customers for a day. This is how he put it, when I interviewed him about his time at Disney a while ago for my podcast:

“Executives are often so far removed from their consumers that they don’t know what’s important to them. I would advise to make it mandatory for everybody in your organization who’s not in direct contact with the consumer to go spend a day per year in their living room. It will ground you in becoming a consumer centric organization.”

This might be more of a radical approach, which might not be for everyone, but the feeling behind is the same: if you want to convince senior management of the importance of customer centricity, then direct feedback is absolutely crucial. I call this proximity the “N=1 effect”.

I’m absolutely sure that all you have been at least once in this situation: you tell your CEO about how a certain dimension of the company is not really performing in the way that it should but you have a great idea on how to fix that. And you’re really excited about it. But then the CEO tells you that, although it’s a great idea, there are other priorities to be tackled. And then, about two months later, your CEO attends a barbecue and one of his neighbors tells him about something he dislikes about his company. Better yet, he shows it on his smartphone. And so the CEO, who really got to experience how terrible the interaction was, comes back to your office and then inquires about your idea on how to solve this disfunction.

So why did it not work the first time around? Well, you approached her or him with a rational explanation, maybe some statistics and this was not enough to really engage him. You need an “emotions” angle for that to work. It’s in fact the exact same dynamic as renowned “pitch doctor” Christoph Sollich, a frequent speaker at my company nexxworks’ Kickstart Innovation Bootcamp, talks about when he gives tips on delivering better pitches to investors. It may be a completely different environment, but the aim is the same: convincing someone who may be thinking and wanting very different things than you. This is how Sollich puts it:

Aim for their heart, not their brain. Investors will only start caring if they have an emotional reaction to the pitch. Only when that happens, they will use their brain.”

And that’s exactly what happened at the barbecue: the malfunction became a priority because a customer, a neighbor actually talked about it and made the CEO “feel” that there was indeed a problem in need of solving. That’s the N=1 effect: reaching out to customers and learning to understand their “natural habitat” on an emotional level.

To conclude: if you want to make sure that your senior leadership is more into customers and understands the importance of investment in that aspect, take them on a safari to the customers so that they can literally hear the “oohs” and the “aahs” directly from their mouth. The “how” can be as discrete (listening in on customer service calls) or as radical as you want (Duncan’s ‘living’ with a customer), but that deep connection needs to be made. And you will see that your leadership’s commitment towards customer centricity will rapidly increase.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Another great blog from Steven Van Belleghem! The very essence of customer experience and customer loyalty is emotional and interpersonal, not rational and analytical. Granted there are quantitative components to service–accuracy, response time, etc. But, customers’ affinity is most often grounded in their feelings more than in their logic. Using quantitative data as the primary tool to convince a leader regarding a fundamentally qualitative encounter is a bit like trying to propose marriage with a PowerPoint slide presentation and spread sheet instead of on your knee!

    When I worked with a large quick service restaurant chain, I arranged for a group of their leaders to visit (incognito) one of their stores right down the street from a Chick-fil-A store. The instructions were to spend thirty minutes eating a meal in each restaurant while observing customers and employees. The response upon their returning to their ivory tower conference room to debrief was essentially the famed NASA line, “Houston, we have a problem.” Quantitative data had been unconvincing; being there told the tale.

    There is one other approach also effective in “Getting senior leadership to invest more in CX.” If you can’t CHANGE the people, change the PEOPLE.” Imagine having a CFO who was bored with numbers or a COO who did not care for details. If the organization is led by leaders who are customer-centric in their orientation, those leaders who are not generally stand out and may need to be “made available to the industry.”

    I worked with a major hospital that was shifting to a strong, obvious patient-centered approach. The chief medical officer was a brilliant surgeon with the bedside manner of Attila the Hun. Despite his very high billing rate, he was replaced with someone whose attitude and actions reflected a patient-centered philosophy. It sent a powerful message throughout the hospital about real priority.

    One of the most customer-centric companies around is Marriott. Where does Bill Marriott spend his time? Even at 89, he visits hotel properties; at one time over 100 per year. He has no interest in getting a formal “briefing” by hotel property leaders. He spends his time talking with the frontline (front and back of the house) and with guests. His visits are impromptu, not announced, enabling him to see what is real, not dressed up for inspection. I have watched Bill greet guests as they arrive to check in, pick up trash in a hallway, even spend time behind the check-in and concierge desks. He does not need convincing about the power and importance of CX; he trusts his up close and personal experiences.

    Excellent advice, Steven. Keep up your great work.

  2. If senior enterprise leadership cannot justify increased customer experience investment on any other rational and/or emotional basis – stakeholder-centric impact on culture, processes, employees, etc.- then they should want to do it purely for the cascading bottom-line financial effect. Enhancing customer relationships and strategic purchasing behavior through superior value delivery and support, with advocacy behavior as an end goal, has monetary benefits which reward both the company and the corps of managers and executives who lead it: https://customerthink.com/monetary_linkage_between_customer_experience_and_customer_advocacy_behavior/

  3. Great article, Steven. This approach supports John Kotter’s conclusions about leading successful enterprise-wide change, “People change what they do less because they are given an analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.” It’s consistent with neuroscience, too. Our emotional/intuitive System 1 runs up to 40x faster than our logical/rational System 2, and it’s where all decisions are ultimately made. System 1 mostly sits on the sidelines and tends to rationalize, not make, decisions. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio states, “We’re not thinking machines that feel, we’re feeling machines that think …sometimes.” Heart first, then mind!

  4. Great post yet again Steven. As I read through it I couldn’t help but remember the analogy of the rider and the elephant originally developed by Jonathan Haidt, (but also used by Chip and Dan Heath in their book “Switch.”) The Rider – the logical, rational (and probably naive) senior executive with his spreadsheets, thinks he is in control, but the irrational, emotional Elephant, i.e. the people and the customers, take the Rider on the path that they choose. Chip, Michael and Ed emphasise this with their comments and examples. The world of CX is in turmoil, even days before yet another platitude-filled international CX Day, and no amount of software, AI and clever bots will solve the headache. Neither will spreadsheets.

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