The connection between customer experience and leadership

Everybody wants to be a part of an organization known for having the best customer experience. Organizations in every industry market themselves as having “The #1 rated customer service” or “We’re known for our customer service,” but often fail to deliver on that brand promise.

In this post, I am going to explore why that is, starting with the relationship between achievement in customer experience and leadership.

Customer Experience and Leadership work together
Strong Leadership and Strong Customer Experience Go Hand-in-hand

Customer Experience as a Differentiator

I was recently listening to a speech by the famous billionaire investor Warren Buffett. In the speech he shared that any business that excels in customer service, can be a successful business.

In that speech, Buffett described the story of Jack Taylor, the founder of Enterprise Rent-A-Car. When Taylor got into the rental car business, there were two dominant companies in that market: Hertz and Avis. Taylor started Enterprise with 17 cars compared with Hertz and Avis having thousands, Enterprise was located in undesirable locations because the larger companies already had prime real-estate (think airports, for example), and the 17 cars he had were no different than the other companies.

Enterprise’s value proposition focused around customer experience and treating the customer better than any other rent-a-car company in America. For example, Enterprise is known for their slogan, “We’ll pick you up,” a commitment to free customer pickup when they need a rental car.

When Taylor passed away, Enterprise Rent-A-Car was worth more than all the other car rental companies put together, despite starting later and with many disadvantages in a commoditized industry.

The power of superior customer experience is real. It is a business imperative to get customer experience right and a business opportunity in industries known for poor customer experience.

What it takes to create a business that delivers incredible customer service

I have led the customer experience function for two large organizations. I know that most companies want their brand to be synonymous with excellence in customer service. However, most senior leaders of these companies do not understand what it takes to accomplish this goal.

A number of companies are known for excellence in customer experience. They include well known brands like the Ritz Carlton, Disney World, Chick Fil-A, Zappos, Starbucks, and Trader Joe’s.

While most companies say that they want to deliver the best customer experience, these companies above have actually done it. Their tactics are published in books, their leaders have explained what it took for them to do it, and their cases have even been studied in business schools.

These companies all follow the same framework to achieve their successes. They do the following:

Step 1: Define the universal behavioral expectations of the company in simple terms.

Example: At Disney World, they teach behavioral expectations aligned to 5 “Keys”: Safety, Courtesy, Inclusion, Show, and Efficiency.

Step 2: Create a campaign of engagement around these universal expectations.

Example: At the Ritz Carlton, the “Ladies and Gentlemen” read from their Credo Card that includes the Ritz Carlton service values on a daily basis during their lineup process.

Step 3: Educate all team members about the expectations.

Example: At Disney World, new hire orientation is called, “Traditions”. This immersive program is the first step of many training and education opportunities for Disney “Cast Members” to live the 5-Keys.

Step 4: Create reinforcing systems that show the employees and the customers the importance of the expectations.

Example: At Zappos, orientation for all positions includes time to answer calls at the call center. Also at Zappos, the company celebrates long customer service calls, where other companies establish Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) to reduce the length of calls with individual customers.

Step 5: Empower team members to live the behavioral expectations in new and creative ways.

Example: At Ritz-Carlton, every “Lady and Gentleman” are empowered to spend up to $2,000 per day per guest to rescue a poor guest experience.

Despite the roadmap being relatively simple, it is difficult to execute. Many businesses struggle with customer experience, including basic customer service.

The Zappos approach to building a fantastic customer experience

Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh gave a 54-minute talk at Stanford University about Zappos’ culture. I would encourage you to watch the seminar in its entirety here:

In the seminar, Hsieh speaks to the discipline and focus a leader needs to run a high performing customer experience organization. Leadership at the highest level of these companies have a relentless focus on the needs of the customer. They prioritize customer experience over short term interests to build high performing cultures.

And, truly, that is the rub when it comes to building a high performing customer experience company. Most senior leaders want the result without understanding the work that excellence in customer experience entails.

Why leadership matters for customer experience

As you heard in the seminar, Tony Hsieh studied how great organizations create cultures that achieve results. A high performing customer experience organization cannot exist without leaders who understand how to build a culture that can execute on the five steps to create a high performing customer experience organization we discussed earlier.

Leaders like Jack Taylor and Tony Hsieh embodied the values they promoted. They were trusted because they would sacrifice short term gains for those values. Furthermore, they understood that the people closest to the work should love their jobs and feel equipped to create human connections with customers, while the leaders create the space for them to do that.

This may seem simple but it is not at all easy. Many leaders treat customer experience as an initiative to improve a KPI like net-promoter-score (NPS) or, in healthcare, the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey. They often try to achieve the targets through tactics likes scripting, pushing customers for survey scores, or through financially incentivizing their teams to achieve those scores.

These tactics represent traditional command, control, and manipulative leadership. At best, the results of initiatives like this are temporary. At worst, they become an outright joke.

When Customer Experience Goes Wrong

Here’s what I mean by outright joke: Call AT&T, or whoever your cell phone provider is. Mine is AT&T.

I had an issue with AT&T that took 18 months to resolve. It took 18 months, multiple phone calls, multiple customer service chats, and one desperate plea at an AT&T store, which got me to a number where an agent finally was empowered to resolve the issue. It was painful.

After the experience, I was certain that my number one goal was to become a customer of literally any other cell phone carrier.

But won’t you believe that after every interaction, I was asked to give them 5-stars in the survey after the call. As a Chief Experience Office (CXO), I was embarrassed for AT&T by that request.

Leadership matters. It sets the tone and direction of the organization. Leadership that prioritizes customer experience also prioritizes humanness.

Why customer experience matters so much to me personally

We share planet earth with more than 8 billion other people. Our world, especially the lens in our head, is a tiny spec in the universe.

My own thoughts and needs are a dichotomy. On one hand, they are all I have to keep me safe as I experience the world. On the other hand, in the grand scheme of the world, I realize that my thoughts and needs are insignificant. 1/8,000,000,000.

It’s a humbling thought.

I have found that the more I can be kind and helpful, the better I can use my spec in the universe to make the human experience easier for other specs in the universe. I do not want to live in a world where everyone is so focused on their own thoughts and needs that the rest of humanity is irrelevant for them. Imagine if we all lived in that world. It would be miserable for all of us.

Organizations, whether public or private, not-for-profit or for-profit, giant companies or small businesses, are fundamentally just organized groups of people. They have the power to make someone’s life a little easier or a little harder. Organizations that choose to prioritize customer experience are also prioritizing making other people’s lives a little bit better.

In my life, I have experienced how frustrating it can be to interact with people and businesses that make my life just a little easier. It makes a difference in my day.

Mission BBQ

There’s a local chain that started here in Maryland called Mission BBQ. I absolutely love this place. The food is great, and they are connected to the brotherhood and camaraderie of the military. The restaurant is not fancy, it’s just the people who work there are genuinely good people. They take care of me at Mission BBQ no matter which location I go to.

When I am having a day where I feel like I need life to get just a little easier, I go to Mission BBQ. It is a company that has become a haven of sorts for me.

Customer experience matters. To me, it’s really making a better human experience in a fast and crowded world. It can be done well, but it requires real leadership.


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