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Becoming customer-centric: a question of culture

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When we talk about ‘customer-centric organisations’, what do we actually mean? And how do we recognise one when we see one? Let me give you a very simple example. Recently, an ASK colleague was travelling to London by train for an evening appointment on a very tight timescale. All was proceeding smoothly until their train ground to a halt a mile beyond the most recent station. The train guard was, of course, apologetic, but plainly had little concrete information to impart. In this digital age, my colleague pulled out his phone to find out if Twitter could enlighten him. This being an age of not just privatisation but of keen commercial competition, the particular route is served by two rival train companies, both running Twitter feeds. Yet where one was giving as little information as the on-board guard (except to emphasise that tickets would not be valid on alternative routes), the other – which would, on a normal working day, have closed for the night an hour earlier – was responding to each inbound tweet, offering advice on alternative routes, and taking customer names to ensure their tickets would be honoured on alternative trains. Short of making the train move again, an impressive and truly customer-centric approach.

A simple example, of course, although the ‘digital’ angle is worth thinking about. We live in a world where customers and clients, whether our organisations are B2B or B2C, can explore, examine, compare and contrast our offering (and our reputation) quickly and easily. They expect websites to be both informative and helpful, and preferably interactive in the truest sense: i.e. that they can pose questions and receive appropriate answers. Organisations can no longer ‘broadcast’: they have to be prepared to receive and ready and able to respond. The Internet doesn’t just give us a voice: it can also give us ears. Compared with twenty years ago, customers are hugely more empowered and enabled. In prioritising the customer’s viewpoint in this way, the digital world doesn’t so much turn organisations inside out as outside in.

Attitude and culture can’t be changed at the flick of a switch

Part of any organisation’s response to this changed world is to adapt its processes and to implement systems to support them. Yet there is a vital component that cannot so readily be drawn as a diagram or installed in the form of hardware of software, necessary as these may be, as our initial simplistic example illustrates. Both train companies had set up Twitter feeds and employed staff to manage them. Yet Company A’s attitude and behaviour felt, from a customer’s perspective, rather like ‘so, you’re stuck on a train: deal with it’, while Company B’s was closer to ‘even if we can’t solve the immediate problem, about which we’re very sorry as we know it’s inconveniencing you, we can go the extra mile to be as proactive, constructive and responsive as possible’. The difference comes down to two elements that even the most necessary technologies cannot deliver: attitude and culture.

Implementing a customer-centric organisation will require process and system change, and these will have implications for employees. There will be role changes to accept and new skills to learn, with all the discomfort and uncertainty that any organisational change entails. L&D and HR must be every bit as on board as IT and the C-Suite. But in becoming an effective, convincing customer-centric organisation, other changes are needed. Customer-centricity is most readily judged by customers, and felt most acutely at the point of contact, and the supported involvement of front-line staff is critical. Yet it is the organisation that will be judged: even the most charming call centre staff cannot make up for the deficiencies of an organisation that a customer can all too easily tell does not empower or enable them to respond. The most effective call centre worker provides real service to a customer, not a metaphorical sandbag for the organisation.

Beyond the org chart…

There are several aspects that must be addressed beyond the system diagram or process chart. For example:

  • Active listening – most immediately, training front-line staff to use open questions to explore and clarify customer requirements, experiences or reasons for (dis)satisfaction; but also ensuring that their scripts and processes allow them to do so, and that the organisational layers above them can learn from the customer feedback that they can most accurately provide
  • Increasing staff skills in receiving feedback (not just at the customer-facing contact point – although this is obviously key – but at higher levels, where feedback from customers and clients needs to be taken on board if meaningful and constructive changes are to be put into action)
  • Internal communications – which need to take place not just downwards (to reinforce cultural, behavioural and process change) but also upwards (so that understanding of the customer experience and of changes that could be made to improve it can be taken on board)
  • Enhancing managerial skills at local levels, to enable delegated responsibilities to be managed capably.

The other important point to make is that staff, whatever their level within an organisation, cannot be updated or re-programmed at the flick of a switch. While this it is a truism of any change that organisations need their employees to make, it is especially true where changes of behaviour and culture are required. Changing culture and behaviour is difficult, and it takes courage, time and a lot of effort. It also requires a more sophisticated L&D intervention. Where lasting and sustainable organisational performance is to be delivered, ‘hit and run’ learning events are not enough. Programmes must pre-prepare and involve their participants, and engage their line managers as the key source of later support and encouragement. They must also involve on-going support, encouragement and practice after any formal training events, to ensure that the changes to be made are neither cosmetic nor short-lived.

Cultural change also requires the active engagement of everyone, so that new behaviours can be measured, encouraged and reinforced, and the alignment of performance management processes so that customer-centric behaviour is both rewarded and recognised. Above all, it requires leaders that are able not just to lead change through their people, but to lead their people through change.[/fusion_text]

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