I teach a global operations strategy graduate course at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. Each semester I set aside one of our sessions to discuss corporate social responsibility within organizations especially as they pursue globalization of their products and services. The lively discussion among students usually centers on which comes first, corporate profits or social responsibility? This semester’s discussion prompted me to question if as professionals, we are advocating for social responsibility and incorporating it into our CX strategic design. The definition of corporate social responsibility can vary depending on the organization, author, or source.
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), perhaps best known for its ISO 900 quality management certifications, released a definition of sustainable development and social responsibility. The organization eliminates the word “corporate” from the definition of social responsibility noting that “its guidance is applicable to all types of organizations and not only to industry or private companies”.
The standard provides a clear and detailed definition of “social responsibility” to prevent misunderstanding: Responsibility of an organization for the impacts of its decisions and activities on society and the environment, through transparent and ethical behavior that:
Contributes to sustainable development, including health and the welfare of society;
Considers the expectations of stakeholders;
Follows applicable law and consistent international norms of behavior; and
Is integrated throughout the organization and practiced in its relationships.
In Dan Pontefract’s article, Stop Confusing CSR with Purpose, Forbes, 2017, he states, “The Financial Times defines corporate social responsibility as “a business approach that contributes to sustainable development by delivering economic, social and environmental benefits for all stakeholders.” He emphasizes, “The key point is sustainable development.”
Alternatively, authors Roger Schroeder and Susan Goldstein* define a “triple bottom line” of sustainability that goes beyond environmental sustainability alone. Schroeder and Goldstein add social (hiring a diverse workforce, ethical practices, providing equal opportunity and safe working conditions) and economic (making a sufficient profit for firm survival into the future) sustainability to create this triple bottom line for companies seeking to tie investments in sustainability to financial results.
For the time being, I’ll set aside the debate about what comes first social responsibility or profit as well as whether there are benefits of social responsibility for stakeholders. Instead, I’ll focus on how as practitioners and consultants we can incorporate any organization’s social responsibility commitments into the design of the customer experience.
What organizations are already doing this well? Brands that embody social responsibility include Patagonia, Warby Parker, Toms, Bombas, IKEA, Legos, Cisco and Baxter International to name a few. Social responsibility is in their DNA. It’s not layered on for publicity or created as an after thought to their brand or in response to current trends or consumer expectations. These organizations give back and are involved in their communities be they global or local. Their brand, their reputation and their customer experience are inextricably linked as one cohesive strategy.
How do we ensure the customer experience strategy we design is aligned to the brand reputation assuming social responsibility is part of the culture of the organization? Keep in mind that some organizations lack a clear, concise customer experience strategy even if they have established an overall brand strategy. Furthermore, customer experience strategies tend to focus on improving the experience with corresponding metrics. They rarely reflect specifics about how organizations deliver their experience in a socially responsible manner. Where in an NPS score can you find a measurement for how well an organization’s experience delivered on its social responsibility commitment? It can be argued that customers make the decision to buy from a company because they have a reputation for social responsibility. While that pre-disposition to purchase might be reflected in the ratings customers provide on satisfaction surveys, we cannot be 100% sure that it is a contributing factor in the purchase decision or ratings results, at least not via the NPS score itself.
Conversely, if social responsibility is not a priority of an organization, is it possible to have a customer experience strategy that does reflect it despite the lack of an overriding brand strategy?
These are complex questions to address for leaders and especially CX professionals seeking to incorporate social responsibility into their design of experiences for clients and customers.
Perhaps the following suggestions will help you design a more comprehensive experience strategy. A strategy that draws attention not only to the ease of doing business with you but also to implementing social responsibility elements deemed important by your customers.
• Have you had a discussion among your leadership team regarding social responsibility and how it aligns to the organization’s brand, vision, mission, and values?
• For organizations with a Corporate Social Responsibility Officer, have you engaged her/him in the CX strategy discussions to link the two visions to one another?
• Does your CX strategy reflect the organization’s social responsibility commitments both in words and in actions taken to execute the strategy?
• Does your strategy reflect your customer base in areas such as culture, ethnicity, geographic and social-economic diversity?
• Is your employee experience reflective of both your brand’s commitment to social responsibility and the experience your customers have with your products and services?
• Like your CX strategies that need to be well-defined, clearly stated, measurable and specific, does the same criteria apply to your social responsibility strategies.
• Have employees been given the necessary training, including behavioral expectations that reflect both the CX strategy and the social responsibility linkage?
• Does your organization live your social responsibility values every day? Is it part of the DNA of the organization? Do they “practice what they preach?”.
Creating a CX strategy aligned to your organization’s social responsibility might be simple compared to having to execute it. Even so, I think it is a business imperative that an organization integrate the two. A strategy aligned to the brand, to create an environment in which employees can thrive and customers can take comfort in knowing they are buying from an organization they can trust to do the right thing when it comes to social responsibility.
Perhaps the next time you have a conversation about improving a process, increasing customer satisfaction and loyalty or what is necessary to drive better revenues and profits, you’ll include a discussion about how best to integrate your customer, employee and social responsibility experiences into a brand image, all stakeholders can be proud of.
*Roger Schroeder & Susan Goldstein, (2019). Operations Management in the Supply Chain, Decisions and Cases (8th Ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education