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The Barriers to Creating a Customer-Centric Culture

It's hard to reorient a large company so that staff put the customer at the heart of their decisions; the first step is to help employees understand where the company is falling short

Many of the world’s biggest and most productive companies can still leave their customers feeling as if they’re not a top priority – especially after, say, numerous interactions with a website, a customer service rep, and an engineer.

This is because a lot of these firms still operate in siloed groups where employees’ performance is measured against operationally-defined goals (such as “increase sales by 10%” or “cut costs by 8%”) that do not take into account the customer’s point of view. In other companies, multiple functions work at cross-purposes (e.g., a product team trying to build a new customer service app versus a legal team looking to minimize the risk of data loss) while all nominally aiming to help customers.

While this may be a problem that’s as old as the history of large and often multinational corporations, what makes it all the more pressing now is that for many firms – young and old – good customer service is one of the most important ways for firms to mark themselves out from the competition.

So many companies have started to find managers that can improve the “end-to-end customer experience.” In layman’s terms this means people that have the track record to understand how each part of a company’s operations affect the customers’ experience, and the clout to make changes that benefit those customers. These roles often come with titles like “chief customer officer” or “head of customer experience”.

Help All Employees See Where the Problems Lie

The main job of chief customer officers and those in similar roles is to ensure employees put the customer at the forefront of the decisions they make or, to put it in their language, to create a “customer centric culture.”

The most common questions from those in CEB’s networks that are responsible for customer experience center on how to help colleagues to consistently account for the customer in their decisions and actions. Discussion of the barriers to these goals — including the view that certain pockets of employees are not well-aligned to this objective — are an unsurprisingly recurrent theme.

Just as true though is that progress towards a common objective is tough when employees don’t all see eye-to-eye about the organizational behavior and culture. Where some groups of employees declare success, others see a situation in dire need of improvement. A good first step for those creating a customer centric culture is to make sure they are aware of this dynamic and then aim to align employees to a common understanding.

CEB data from a survey of 1,200 US-based employees of large firms shed light on where within the workforce these misalignments are most likely to occur. Think of these as the naturally occurring fault lines within any company – divides where leaders must pay particular attention to the perceptions of employees and the effects of those perceptions on peers across the organization.

This four-part series of posts will look at the workforce in the following segments, and what it means for creating a customer centric culture.

  • Their functional alignment.
  • Their proximity to the customer.
  • Where they sit in the organizational hierarchy.
  • Their tenure.

Functional Alignment

Looking at employees’ functional alignment is an important way to understand customer centricity because providing an end-to-end customer experience can only come from a good number of functions working together.

To understand this, CEB’s analysis focused on which functions tend to are more positive about their firm’s customer-centric efforts, and which are more predisposed to spot flaws. For leaders charged with catalyzing a culture of customer centricity, it’s useful to know where in the firm the biggest challenges lie in getting your message across.

The most significant difference among various functions within an organization was over the issue of how empowered they felt to make changes that would improve the customer experience. Among the different functions surveyed, IT as well as sales and marketing employees were nearly 10% more likely to perceive the workforce as empowered to make decisions to improve the customer experience compared to their colleagues in Customer Service and Operations (see chart 1).

Empowerment data

Chart 1: Empowerment data  Percentage of employees who feel empowered to improve customer experience by functional role  Source: CEB analysis

Perceptions of Customer Loyalty

Employees in different functions also tend to perceive customer loyalty differently as well. Sales and marketing staff are much more likely to see customers as disloyal: 18% believe their customers to be disloyal verses just 5% of colleagues in Finance and HR.

The good news is that employees across the board understand the need for collaboration. Over 80% of staff see the need for solid cross-functional collaboration to improve customer experience. That said, they consistently reported across functions that the tools were not in place to share information about customer needs.

All employees agree that the customer experience is one of the most important factors in retaining customers. By aligning perceptions among functions and enabling better cross-functional sharing of customer data, companies can become more cohesive and customer-centric. On top of this, providing and encouraging the adoption of information sharing tools makes all staff feel more empowered to put the customer at the forefront of their decisions.


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