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C – Six Leadership Levers to Create the Customer-Centered Culture


The alignment of language, values, measures, power, assumptions and modeling are the main levers every leader can and must apply for dramatic and durable change.  If greater customer focus is what you want, the speed and size of result will depend on how many levers are used simultaneously and consistently.

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Six Leadership Levers to Create the Customer-Centered Culture.  Customer focus has been largely an empty promise for many organizations.  Connect customer focus to those promoting big data and you are likely to see two ideas that have simply not yet lived up to their potential.  Plenty of hope and money have been invested, but execution in both areas has been dismal. There is plenty of proof, for which a remedy is at hand.

Consider the fact that established retailers send their winter catalog to you at your home in Florida, Arizona, Texas or elsewhere below the Mason-Dixon Line, promoting the new parkas and snow apparel.  But no swimsuits, flip-flops or beach towels suitable for your balmy weather.

You travel for business way too much, so you know a lot about being a customer of hotels.  Like thousands of other managers and professionals, our research reveals your top priority from that overnight stay at the hotel for tomorrow’s business meeting is….a good night’s sleep.  This should not be news to hotels since they beg you to complete their satisfaction surveys. You may think they really want to know about your experience.  Not really.  Their true goal is to get a high “net promoter score” or NPS.  That number provides a ranking of all your competitors.  But there is no question on the survey about how good your sleep was.  So, while it is possible to get a high NPS, it is still quite possible to create high dissatisfaction.  Talk about misalignment!

Look at the strategic plans of any 10 organizations where leaders say they are customer-focused.  You will find priorities to be improved such as market share, profitability, sales and revenue growth, time to market, use of social media, data security and other matters the organization values.  Where in those plans do you see the defined desired-outcomes wanted by customers, the way satisfaction of those outcomes will be measured and numerical goals for improvement?  Mostly absent.

Speaking of values, there is an excellent chance “customer satisfaction,” “diversity” and “pay for performance” are among the top core values managers of those 10 organizations espouse. Examine the evidence of execution.   While the organization tends to have written policies covering many of its priorities – allowed hiring criteria, authorization to spend money, eligibility for travel expense reimbursement – it is rare to find a written customer-satisfaction policy in place and deployed.  How important, then, can satisfaction really be?  An example of a customer-satisfaction policy used effectively by a number of especially insightful leaders can be found at .

On the diversity side of things, it is not news that women make up about 51% of the world population.  One of American women’s common complaints is that there is no place near the driver’s seat in their car to hold their purses. Good luck finding design criteria specifically addressing women’s priorities across all enterprise products.  It is beyond comprehension why we continue to see venues for masses of people (airports, theaters, stadiums, restaurants) still forcing women to interminably stand in line to access basic facilities.  Perhaps our satisfaction and diversity values are not all they could be. Or we’ve missed the whole meaning of big data.

If we are going to reward performance, seemingly a terrific idea, who determines what “performance” means?  Rarely is it customers.  Managers make those decisions, usually based on the most employee-disliked management tool of all time: performance reviews.  No customers need be involved.  Despite all the airline woes that have made it into YouTube infamy by millions of viewers, is it possible employees hated by customers get raises but those loved do not? Yup.

There are endless examples of giant disconnects between leaders’ aspirations and organizational practices regarding customer focus.  These come from observing organizations in both the commercial and not-for-profit worlds where leaders have made statements on their intent, which are at odds with behavior and results.

Research conducted by Indiana State University, American Society for Quality and others have concluded that the main barriers to success rest with management and include (a) vague direction, (b) ignorance of readily available data, (c) ignorance and absence of a system to achieve customer-centered change and (d) failure to achieve successful execution of intent. Clearly, there is huge opportunity to better fulfill our leadership promises. All within our control.

Enlightened leaders who actually have a passion to create customer joy may be an endangered species but they do exist.  If you are one, how do you cut through the bull and warmed-over platitudes and turn aspiration into reality?

The first steps a leader can take to actually achieve sustainable enterprise-wide customer focus and organization success include a strong readiness to:

  • Discard the notion that customer-centeredness is the province of a specific department, function or level of employee. If we don’t engage everyone, from top to bottom, we have not achieved alignment.
  • Accept the overwhelming finding that customer focus begins and ends with culture, driven by the organization’s top leader(s). To quickly assess your customer-centered culture (C3IQ) and see what actions need attention, take 5 minutes at .
  • Immediately stop a few counterproductive behaviors. Those will involve putting the brakes on all customer-satisfaction surveys (see the article, “Are Your Surveys Only Suitable for Wrapping Fish?” at ). Don’t begin again until you know that the products used by anyone surveyed have already been designed to satisfy their priorities regarding desired outcomes, functional performance and subjective appeal.  In other words, if women and Hispanics are major user groups for riding lawnmowers, why does the placement of seats assume users are over 5’8”?  Replace the reactive with the proactive, design versus surveys.
  • Amend your strategic plan to assure there is alignment among stated customer priorities, core values, deployment vehicles such as policies, measures of success and numerical improvement goals. If something is really valued, it is measured, has numerical goals to attain, and has unambiguous ownership to achieve them.
  • Personally and broadly apply the 6 Levers for cultural transformation described briefly below.

Six Leadership Levers

Saying the leader’s job is to win the war is not helpful.  Admonitions to take action are always constrained by the absence of systems and mechanisms to be deployed.  So it is, when leaders are told they need to better communicate intent and then hold folks accountable for putting that intent into action. The question is how to do that effectively and sustainably.  A big part of the answer resides with the 6 Levers.

The alignment of language, values, measures, power, assumptions and modeling are the main levers every leader can and must apply for dramatic and durable change.  If greater customer focus is what you want, the speed and size of result will depend on how many levers are used simultaneously and consistently.

One CEO and his leadership team at a financial institution used just the first three and saw a revenue increase of $48 million in the first six months, simultaneously creating significant customer satisfaction including growth in wealth. The director of a state Department of Revenue used all six.  The Department cut response time to customers by 90%, jumped from a ranking of 25th to among the top five of 50 states, gained an avalanche of customer kudos, saved several million dollars and won their Baldrige Award, all within 24 months.  Results were sustained over both political parties and three administrations.  Your results could be greater.

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You can also find this article on Customer Think – Six Leadership Levers to Create the Customer-Centered Culture

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