The future of customer experience improvement is all about culture

The future of customer experience improvement is all about culture

When you think about companies that provide an incredible customer experience, it’s no coincidence they are the exact same companies that have amazing cultures. Think Southwest Airlines, Ritz Carlton, Zappos, Nordstroms…great customer service and great workplace cultures since culture is the ultimate driver of a sustainably exceptional customer experience.

“Customer experience” is a hot subject these days but many organizations continue to put their front line employees in the middle of a horrible customer experience and their employees are sick of being in that position.

It’s not good enough to have a great product or service; you need an exceptional customer experience.

One example of a terrible customer experience

We all have experienced our customer service nightmares…at a restaurant or hotel, filing a warranty claim, or, my favorite, dealing with phone customer service systems.  I may be overly sensitive to this insanity but here’s a recent example:

  • I joined a great new company and traveled to their headquarters in Chicago. I stopped for gas during the drive back to Michigan and my credit card was declined.
  • I called my bank, PNC, and went through the countless phone options to talk to a representative. She said a security hold had been placed on my account and I would need to talk to their loss prevention group. “They don’t start until 8 AM so you will need to call back.” I asked to talk to a supervisor and she said that was not possible. I asked if a message could be left for their loss prevention group to call me and she said that’s not possible. She recorded a complaint on my behalf and seemed just as frustrated as me.
  • I called back and finally connected with loss prevention to find out my account was part of a huge data breach at Home Depot that impacted as many as 56 million cards and it was placed hold due to a charge out of state. I verified the charge was not fraud but she said my card could only be used as a debit card and I would not be able to use it for credit card transactions. They would send me a new card.
  • I received the new card, activated it, and tried to use it for gas again…declined. You know the routine…call customer service. Oh no – it’s before 8 AM again and I’ll need to call back to talk to loss prevention. I told the representative it wasn’t his fault but they have horrible customer service. He was nice and told me he heard the same thing from others that same morning.
  • I finally reached loss prevention, they apologized, and they re-set my card to resolve the situation. I still don’t understand why a multi-billion dollar bank that places loss prevention holds on cards 24 hours a day wouldn’t have representatives available to deal with those holds at all times.

Sure, I was frustrated. The employees caught in the middle of this terrible customer experience were just as frustrated. They were unfortunately handicapped by policies, processes, and technology that speak volumes about the broader culture at PNC. I am not ready to nominate them for the Customer Service Hall of Shame due to the consistently positive experience I had in visits across many branches. This one experience does highlight problems and opportunities I am sure many customers and employees have previously identified.

Customer experience must be a top priority

A great product or service is just table stakes these days. The complete customer experience is the ultimate driver of customer loyalty and growth. 93% of senior executives say customer experience is one of their top three priorities and 70% of organizations are currently managing initiatives to provide a more consistent customer experience.

The answer is not jumping to customer feedback, process mapping, and training.

Forrester research released a report titled: Market Overview – Where to get Help with Culture Transformation. As the co-founder of, I read the report with great anticipation. I expected to see some of the pioneers in the culture transformation space like Human Synergistics, Senn Delaney, Denison, the Barrett Values Centre and others. I was very surprised to see only one contributor to CultureU covered (Root Inc.). I reviewed all 14 companies featured to see if I had been living under a rock the last 20 years and missed their leadership in the culture transformation space.

Forrester concluded these companies fell in two groups. Culture transformation specialists that “transform their clients’ cultures into ones that are customer-obsessed by shifting specific employee behaviors through training and coaching.”  Interesting, do you think training and coaching would have helped to change anything with my PNC example? The second group included customer experience specialists that “offer a broader suite of customer experience consulting services.” The services provided by these experts were all over the map. Some appeared to grasp key culture fundamentals while others oversimplified the challenge by focusing on their process to close the gap between a current customer experience and a target customer experience.

Taking action to improve customer experience

Simon Sinek said “customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.” Your complete customer experience is a direct reflection of your culture. If you are truly serious about improving customer experience, your improvement approach should include the following basics as part of a broader strategy:

  1. Start with purpose and/or mission: your customer experience commitment must be clearly connected to your purpose or mission. The Southwest Airlines purpose is a great example: To connect people to what’s important in their lives though friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel. Have you clarified your purpose or mission and clearly defined the unique customer experience you promise to deliver?
  2. Clarify a focused vision: Some organizations are ready for a full customer experience mapping effort but most are not. Results are required in some form for any new cultural attribute to form. Select an area or scope where substantial progress can be made, ideally in less than six months. Initial efforts to focus on new clients, converting new clients to repeat clients, and reducing customer complaints are good examples. Define the focus and 1-3 specific behaviors (often related to collaboration, communication, attention to detail, etc.) that will be reinforced as part of the improvement focus.
  3. Engage your team in clarifying strategies, goals, measures, and actions: Improvement ideas are lurking everywhere. Utilize basic feedback and prioritization efforts to foster ownership as you engage your organization in the process. These initial priorities should be integrated in broader strategies and plans to support your vision in a high quality and, in some cases, unique and memorable way. The key is to not only focus on the tactics of improvement actions but in a way that continuously reinforces the very specific behaviors you identified in your focused vision.
  4. Manage the implementation and communicate: Regular habits to review progress, refine action plans, and communicate status across the organization must be in place. It’s a learning process to improve customer experience and a workplace culture. Utilize feedback from employees and customers to continuously refine and expand on your improvement approach as you remain focused on the measures.
  5. Visibly track progress, recognize, and reward: Track your key measure or measures in a visible way so status is clear. I worked with an award-winning health spa that was a great example. They initially focused improvement on converting new clients to a second visit. They tracked a simple counter for the number of clients that returned for a second visit each month. A board was posted that included the counter as well as a star for each individual returning visit for each technician (since most returning visits were to the same technician and not to a new technician each time). They recognized individuals as well as celebrating overall progress on this metric that more than doubled in one year.

The employees in this last spa example were proud of their individual and collective progress as opposed to the frustration experienced by the PNC employees that were stuck on the front lines of a bad customer experience. Your customer experience improvement approach might include deeper process mapping, training, or other improvements but don’t overlook these critical fundamentals.

Do you agree that sustainable customer experience improvement is all about culture change? What approaches have you used? Please comment on social media and I’ll respond to every point of view.

Editor’s Note: read Tim’s most popular CultureU post: 8 Culture Change Secrets Most Leaders Don’t Understand

About the Author

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Tim Kuppler

Faculty Tim Kuppler is the founder of Culture University and former Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field where he led collaboration and partnering efforts with culture experts, consulting firms, industry organizations and other groups interested in making a meaningful difference in their organization, those they support, and, ultimately, society. Currently with the Compass culture division of the staffing powerhouse, Insight Global, Tim authored Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed, which was endorsed as the "go-to" resource for building a performance culture. He previously led major culture transformations as a senior executive with case studies featured as part of the 2012 best-selling book – Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations. He was also President of Denison Consulting, a culture assessment and consulting firm and is an accomplished speaker and recognized as a Top 100 leadership conferences speaker on Tim's 20 years of culture and performance improvement experience includes the rare mix of executive leadership, coaching, and consulting knowledge necessary to help leaders quickly improve team effectiveness and results as they focus on their top performance priorities, challenges, and/or goals. He networks extensively in the workplace culture field in order to learn and apply the latest insights from many experts.