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Want happy customers? Focus on happy employees

How do you recognize a customer-centric culture? Employees individually and collectively prioritize customer needs in everything they do.
Want happy customers

It was 5:18 a.m. – after a five-hour, red-eye flight – when I arrived at the tony vineyard resort, where in three hours, I would face 15 participants in a two-day leadership training program. But the receptionist couldn’t find my reservation and didn’t seem to care much. When I got to my room 90 minutes later, a note of greeting read: “Hospitality and service as a way of life.” Oh, the irony!

The incident spotlights that being customer-centric requires a culture where employees must live the inspirational quotes espoused. A decade ago, lapetitemort.info and Egon Zehnder studied the relationship between managerial quality and revenue growth. The analysis found that customer impact – the capacity to grasp the evolving needs of customers – led all leadership competencies.

The degree of customer impact also correlated with a company’s revenue growth and the effectiveness of its top executives across all growth situations, as well as with the senior teams and managers below them. It helps define a customer-centric culture where employees individually and collectively prioritize customer needs in everything they do.

Why are some organizations better than others at creating leaders focused on customer impact? How do you recognize a customer-centric culture? Invariably, a customer-centric organization displays:

  • A clear vision that customer experience is a priority.
  • Formal mechanisms to co-create that experience with customers and complementary partners.
  • Accountability created among employees.

In such organizations, employees at all levels possess the freedom to drive customer service excellence. Customer experience and outcomes are measured, shared and tied to individual performance assessment. These organizations recognize and reward internal cross-functional collaboration and knowledge-sharing because they understand how to serve customers better. The employee experience reflects the customer care the organization seeks to create.

Consider Southwest Airlines, a recognized leader in customer experience. It consistently scores in the mid-sixties in public NPS (Net Promoter Score) benchmarks that measure customers’ willingness to recommend a company’s products or services to others, a score that is higher than any airline and one of the leaders in any industry.

Many travelers are familiar with Southwest crew members delivering safety announcements with humor, thereby personalizing that obligatory inflight duty and making it more enjoyable for passengers. And it goes beyond the safety spiel. Employees are routinely asked to submit ideas for improving safety and hospitality and for paring costs.

Southwest gives employees the autonomy to deliver a premium customer experience and to continuously improve it. When the airline decided new uniforms were needed to match its new logo and image, they asked their employees to design them. Thousands volunteered, and 43 employees were chosen to collaborate. They designed a fashionable, yet functional uniform (even machine washable, a rarity) that employees say represents Southwest’s personality.

Forbes named Southwest No. 12 on its list of America’s Best Employers in 2016. CEO Gary Kelly attributed the ranking to “the passion [employees] show every day for offering the best in hospitality to our customers and to each other.”

This is an example of customer service done well, where employees are empowered to be engaged and passionate about the customer experience.

My reservation at the vineyard resort was not in the system; something had gone wrong in the back office. That happens. The next day, resort managers apologized many times. Still, in the end, the receptionist likely was not empowered to go above and beyond. He likely did not feel safe to take a risk and give me a room without following protocol. That single incident left an indelible memory – and it wasn’t favorable.

*Alex Camp and Hortense de la Boutetiere also contributed to this post.

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