An executive at a software company was talking with me recently about the challenge of creating a customer-centric culture. His company, like many, was built on a foundation of technical excellence. Its leaders climbed the ladder based on their programming prowess and reputation. Of course, they wanted to do the right thing by their customers—but the company’s DNA spiraled tightly around the product, not the market.
It’s hard to create a customer-centric culture when the leadership is all about the technology.
This conversation made me reflect on techniques for instilling customer empathy in leaders. Here are some practices that we’ve seen actually work:
- Listening in on support interactions. If leaders hear live customer support calls, they get a much better perspective on how things work in the real world, not just how they’re designed. We’ve seen execs schedule an hour a month for this, with a virtual “Y Jack” going to their desk phone so they can listen in without disrupting people or inconveniencing themselves. We’ve also seen a public “phone booth” where any employee can listen in to live support calls—red London-style phone booths seem popular for this. (Although if your company is geeky enough, you might try a Tardis instead.)
- Follow-me-home and customer visits. The logistics of this for SaaS and other “virtual product” businesses is tricky, but follow-me-home is great for understanding the initial customer experience with your products live, in the user’s actual environment. We’re not doing serious ethnography, here; the goal isn’t to develop detailed corrective plans or get actionable usability data. It’s all about empathy and mindset.Customer visits are like follow-me-home, but done with existing implementations and experienced customers. The Sage Listens 6,300 mile executive road trip is an extreme example of this, but modest local visits can have big impacts, too—especially if they’re captured on video, and key moments are shared by execs with their teams.
- Scheduled Voice of the Customer reports. Circulate a weekly or biweekly brief to the executives telling them one interesting or surprising thing you’ve learned from customers. (I’ve read that Jeff Bezos started this program in the early days at Amazon.) I expect most of your companies do transactional and relationship surveys; voice of the customer reports provide an interesting human complement to those.
- Customer Experience Journey Mapping. Regular readers of this blog know Customer Experience Journey Mapping is a big favorite of ours right now, and we’ve really seen it work, especially in aligning cross-functional teams to focus on the customer. The really great thing about journey maps is that they can suggest key, highly specific measures for gauging the customer impact of things that you do. (Often these involve the time it takes for a customer, not the company, to accomplish a task.)
- Institutionalizing Customer Measures. Once these other activities suggest some key measures of value from the customer perspective, measure them organizationally and hold teams (and where possible, individuals) accountable for them. Nothing changes culture faster than measures. Report on your old measures at first, too, as you gain experience with the new ones.
In a lower-tech environment, I sometimes suggest that executives walk through the customer experience themselves—setting up the product and accomplishing some simple task with it. However, in highly technical environments, I don’t recommend this. The execs are probably way better at using the product than the average customer, and besides, they’d have too much fun!
Another thing to manage will be executives’ target fixation on the specific customer issues they see and hear. That’s why consistently repeating these empathy activities is important—it gets leaders away from focusing on one shiny new thing, and instead opens them up to the big picture.
I’d love to hear in the comments: what techniques has your company used to make the customer experience top of mind for your company’s leaders?
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