During a conversation with a customer, the following exchange really struck a chord with me.
“Our CEO is starting to talk about the company being customer-centric”
Good news, right? Change starts from the top and all that. Net Promoter programs need executive sponsorship. And this is a very big company! Think of the opportunity.
“I don’t believe him.”
Four little words. Volumes of meaning. What those four words actually meant was:
“We say we care about the customer, but we don’t.“
“I’m skeptical we will ever change that view.”
“Our CEO will never put the words into action.”
The phrase “putting customers first” has become a bromide, a placatory statement.
I recently sat in a conference of the 100 top managers of a significant UK business as the top executive led his recap of their (successful) financial year. I heard the term “free cash flow” 6 times in 20 minutes. People were happy. Stock price got a mention. Then the #2 executive did something quite remarkable, something they had never done before. He welcomed two major customers onto the stage, sat them down and asked them if they would recommend his firm. In a display of mutual corporate courage, he asked two people – who he knew to be detractors – to nail their colors to the mast in front of the firm. It was like asking a gladiator if Caesar was a wise leader in front of 100,000 screaming Romans. And the gladiator says, “To be honest, I’d rank him 6 out of 10.”
You could have heard a pin drop. I was eyeing the exits, planning to use the tea-trolley lady as a human shield.
It’s hard to drive customer experience programs in businesses because it is an unnatural act. Selling product is a natural act. Manufacturing and shipping product is a natural act (although in the days I ran a plant I managed to make it look otherwise!) What is unnatural are these two actions: 1) sincerely committing a business to change culture without a massive forcing function, such as a crisis and then: 2) implementing a program which asks everyone to turn over rocks, find an unpleasant truth, share it with everyone and commit to acting to address it.
If you are running a customer experience program, my guess is that it takes a force of will to keep it going. No matter how successful it has been, no matter how obvious the proof points, you are only one change in management away from killing the entire effort. And that’s just talking about outright assassination. Equally likely: de-emphasis, funding cuts, process shortcuts…the slow death could be worse. The inertia of the business is such that it regresses away from a successful program unless force prevents it from doing so.
Let’s call it The First Law of Net Promoter Sustainability: “A company without an established customer centric culture will kill its customer centric programs without significant opposing force.” A corollary to the Law is that companies with an established culture don’t even think they have customer experience programs. There is nothing to kill because it’s not a program, it is business as usual.
This means that conventional leadership approaches don’t work so well. The well established executive practice of jumpstarting an initiative with focus and sponsorship, then backing off as the program gets established – “we have that nut well cracked” – is a high risk strategy as a slide in focus can be hard to spot day to day.
My advice is this. If you think you have it under control, when you think you have tamed the beast and everyone is on board – don’t turn your back.