Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Link Between Customer Obsession & Company Culture

Ross Freedman, Co-founder and Board Member


Like many terms coined by analysts and journalists, I believe the term “customer obsession” is misunderstood. Inc. Magazine talks about The 5 Habits of Customer Obsessed Companies. Salesforce talks about The Three Keys for Igniting Customer Obsession. There is even a book called “Customer Obsession: How to Acquire, Retain, and Grow Customers in the New Age of Relationship Marketing”. With all of these competing ideas and philosophies around the term “customer obsession”, I feel many people, companies and organizations don’t truly recognize what it means to be customer obsessed and more importantly what drives customer obsession in successful organizations. While I don’t claim to be an expert on this topic, I thought I would share my thoughts and perspectives with this blog post.

Demystifying “Customer Obsession”

I have been interested in and passionate about “customer obsession” for some time now. I first heard about the concept a number of years ago when I read an article about Zappos. I was recently re-introduced to the term a few months ago when I spoke at an event with an analyst at Forrester Research catering to 40 of Chicago’s top Chief Marketing Officers. The subject matter from this event was based upon a Forrester Research report titled, Competitive Strategy In The Age Of The Customer, which states, "In this age of the customer, the only sustainable competitive advantage is knowledge of and engagement with customers. The successful companies will be customer obsessed." It goes on to say, “By being customer obsessed, you’re actually putting yourself in the shoes of the customer and experiencing the company as they are experiencing it”.

From this event and my research on the topic leading up to the event, it was clear to me that “customer obsessed” companies are maniacal about designing every imaginable process in their organization to be centered around how it impacts their customers’ experience. This is not just limited to customer-facing processes, such as the call script of the customer service agent. From my experience, even internal processes that have ancillary downstream impacts on customer-facing people and processes need to be examined and fine-tuned. Customer obsessed companies have a "customer for life" mentality. For me (and for Rightpoint), being "customer obsessed" means realizing that every single interaction with a customer is a "customer moment". Those moments define an organization's brand, customer experience and ultimately, its reputation. The reason for my interest and passion around this topic is because this is a mentality I personally share as well.

The Human Side Of Customer Obsession

When I thought about customer obsession in the context of Rightpoint, (a company I have some intimate experience with Smile), I felt something was missing. The Forrester report and many of the thought leadership pieces I cited above talk about analyzing data to know your customer better, creating customer centric processes, and using technology to improve the customer experience. These are all extremely important components of creating a customer obsessed organization, but what I believe is missing is the notion that true customer obsession is actually driven by the people within the organization – from the CEO and leadership team to the newest intern. While we are moving to an increasingly digital world where our interactions with different brands and organizations are not always high-touch / human-centric, I believe that unless the people within the organization are personally customer obsessed, in their hearts and minds, even the greatest effort to create an experience by which processes are more customer-centric will fail to be successful. Therefore, I believe customer obsession has more to do with an organization’s people and their mindset than its process and technology. Neither the process nor the technology matter if the people behind them aren’t fully committed to and bought into the concept of the customer obsessed company.

Customer Obsession Starts With Culture

If customer obsession is about people, we need to think about the human side of customer obsession. I believe successful companies have identified a strong and direct link between their company culture and customer obsession. After all, how can we expect our customers to love our company if our own people do not love our company first? With that as my premise, I believe that organizational clarity around a company’s vision and values is the first place to start in driving a healthy culture and ultimately, a customer obsessed organization.

We all know that there is a stark dichotomy in the world between organizations that seem to “get it” and organizations that frustrate us to no end. The organizations that seem to “get it” are brands that appear “customer obsessed” because the experience we have interacting with them is consistently positive and extremely delightful. Companies who “get it” are a pleasure to do business with. A few examples that come to mind are Amazon, Nordstrom, Southwest and Zappos. Interacting with these companies as part of my daily life makes me want to hit the Staples button: “That was easy!”. Conversely, there are those organizations I would call “customer-repressed”. These are companies who don’t seem to care, invest or focus on their customer experience. These companies treat us like a number - not a human. Since this is a public blog post, I will refrain from citing the brands I frequently interact with that don’t seem to get it.

All of the customer obsessed companies I researched (and personally interact with) are companies who have winning cultures. I don’t think it is a coincidence that these companies have organizational clarity around their vision and values, as well as a customer obsessed mindset. These companies consistently do some things differently. First and foremost, they spend a great deal of time and energy on their hiring practices. They would rather hire “fully formed adults” (as Netflix refers to it) that rely on principles (i.e. values) instead of rules. They “walk the talk” when it comes to defining what they stand for and what matters most to them so they are living their values every day. And these companies can identify when they have made a hiring mistake by quickly and efficiently working with that individual to ensure they find the next chapter of their career at another organization.

If creating a healthy and aligned culture is the best place to start when creating a customer obsessed organization, we need a starting point. We need a way to first assess whether the people within our organization are customer obsessed.

The Customer Obsession Challenge

To identify if you (as an individual) are customer obsessed within your organization, I have created a simple method to assess your own customer-obsession level. My Customer Obsession Challenge consists of 3 simple questions and applies to anyone working for an organization that serves customers (and I use the term customer loosely since you may serve members, donors, constituents, colleagues, etc. as your “customer”). If you answer “YES” to ALL three questions, I would consider you personally “customer obsessed.”

  1. Do you feel connected to your company’s vision & values in your heart (emotionally) and mind (logically)?
  2. Do you set the bar at “WOW” in order to delight your customer in every single interaction?
  3. Does your customer feel that you truly “own” their problem as if it was your own by dropping everything and “moving mountains” to swarm their problem when it arises?

In summary, if you are one of the many people or companies striving to become customer obsessed, while it may seem logical to start analyzing data and designing customer centric processes, I urge you to start looking inward before you start looking outward. Throughout our lives, we engage with organizations and companies of all sizes every day. In most cases, we don’t have a choice - we need to fly places, buy groceries, use services, and shop for things in order to live. In any case, a customer experience is formed – whether the company we interact with deliberately shaped it or left it to chance. Think about the alignment of your vision and values and whether you and the people within your organization think with a customer obsessed mindset.

The promise of the future is that if we all are successful being more customer obsessed (personally) and creating more customer obsessed companies (organizationally), there will be more companies like Zappos, Nordstrom, Southwest, etc. which will create more pleasing customer experiences in our lives as we shop, fly, buy, live, etc. With more consistently pleasing customer experiences in our lives, perhaps we can even drive towards a happier planet. I’m in, are you?