My first professional job was in Customer Relations for McDonald’s. Our department functioned primarily as a “call center,” and most of our work involved responding to letters or phone calls. It was 1991, and we couldn’t connect by social media. Customers went out of their way to reach out. In our roles, we were connected with the business, restaurants, other departments, and suppliers. We were a direct connection to customers to answer their questions, respond to concerns, accept praise for employees, and relate the brand to the millions of people who visited each day. Perhaps the most important part of the function was the reporting that we shared with restaurants and leaders around the world so that they could ultimately make improvements based on customer feedback. This was key. Company decisions were made as a result of customer feedback. Now that was customer-centricity. That was nearly twenty-five years ago, and I still draw on this experience today.
Since that time, I have worked with a variety of brands and businesses on their communications plans and activities. Our team has helped guide organizations through significant culture change, communicate acquisitions, launch products, celebrate milestones, announce new or changed benefits, coach leaders, design and write website copy, and more. Our most common task is sitting with leaders, listening to their vision, mission and strategies, and helping them communicate this important messaging to large organizations of diverse employees who span cultures and countries. Basically, we help leaders engage their employees to deliver their business plans. In the course of this work, across industries and organizations, there’s a common message that most leaders ask us to help them communicate: Put the customer first. Be more customer-centric. Focus on the customer. The trouble is, often times that message isn’t backed with a culture or process that enables the desired action to be real.
Given my early experience with a company that was truly customer-focused, I expected similar behaviors in other organizations. I also expected to see and experience these behaviors as a customer myself. Professionally, when we see a gap, we counsel – make it real first, then talk about it. The experience has to match the storytelling. It isn’t sustainable if it’s not real. So how do you create a customer-focused culture? How do you make it “real?”
Here are six common traits of customer-focused organizations:
- Their customer relations people have good communications skills, which include:
- Sincere listening, sensitivity, and empathy.
- Brand awareness and appreciation.
- Product/issue knowledge. And I’d prioritize these skills in this particular order with listening, sensitivity and empathy at the very top. Some might debate why product knowledge is last, especially if you’re working at Apple or a medical device company where it seems logical that some technical expertise would trump empathy. I believe that, if one and two are in place, customers will be patient while you research and get back to them on number three. (The only exception here is an emergency support person at 911.)
- Their customer relations “process” is connected to the business and can influence real change. It’s important to have a process that gives your organization quick insight and analysis of what your customers are saying. The process needs to include gathering point-of-sale feedback if in a retail setting, and identifying important decision-makers at a corporate office who need to access the feedback.
- They empower those who engage with the customer to own the answer or solution that fits a specific situation. Hire the right people, then empower them to listen and respond as they see fit. Offer guidelines so they understand the range of what’s possible. Anyone who’s contacted a company can relate to the person on the other end of the phone or chat. It’s really obvious (to me) when that person is hamstrung with solutions, and can’t really engage and consider what makes the best sense.
- They support the concept of “listening for understanding,” a behavior that has a strong influence over whether a conversation is productive. If someone is listening for a break in the conversation, to simply read or reply with a standard, approved, “form” response, he isn’t able to listen to gain an understanding of the real issue. I emailed customer support at a cosmetics company to tell them that an eye cream I ordered through their app arrived with a broken seal. I asked for a replacement by mail, yet I received a “form” response, directing me to take the product back to the store. If you read the two emails next to each other, you wouldn’t even know that they connected to the same issue.
- They give the customer a “voice” at the corporate level. Is customer feedback built into key leadership meetings? Are the leaders exposed to market-wide insights, then rewarded or recognized when those insights are baked into the plan? … which brings me to the final point:
- They have a planning process that involves customer insights as the starting point – from proactive customer feedback to market insights and online discussions. Insights keep you tapped into current and evolving customer needs. This is important so that any plans can be designed to meet real needs and interests.
Organizations that are truly “customer-centric” have these traits, as well as a supportive culture that embraces change in order to give customers what they want and need.