Customer-Centric Leadership Traits

Where it all begins!

By Taco Nieuwenhuijsen

Like many organizational best practices, it's no surprise that Customer Centricity begins with leadership.

When I am asked to review an organization, as part of my assessment I always visit the "Our Values" page to learn how well the customer is represented in the value-set.

And as one can expect, in most cases the value-set does include one or more sentences about the customer. But does that make an organization Customer-Centric? Most likely not.

Although there is good merit in mentioning the customer in your value-set, it is obvious that this is just the first step of a long journey towards genuine Customer Centricity. 

And it's self-explanatory that it starts with leadership.

"Customer Centric leaders know that long-term sustainability depends on the organization's ability to select, engage, and retain the most attractive customer segments".

So what does it take to be a Customer-Centric Leader?

Firstly, Customer-Centric leaders relentlessly demonstrate a genuine interest in their customers every single day.

What does this mean in practice? It actually means that you as a leader have the customer always on top of your mind.  

Regardless of whether the subject is of strategic, financial, or operational nature, you ensure that the customer is always an integral part of the discussion, decision, and solution.

Customer Centricity starts with engaged leaders

By doing so, you are signaling clearly the importance of the customer to all internal and external stakeholders, who in their turn will be encouraged to do the same.

An associative customer-reflection session is a good starting point for identifying routes of customer inclusion in daily business routines.

Customer-Centric leaders listen to and talk with their customers.

Direct communication with your customers is vital to any successful endeavor. All the time? Yes, all the time! 

Genuine Customer-Centric leaders are actively inviting their customers to provide their feedback, suggestions, and ideas all the time. 

Listening to your customers can be very rewarding

Ensure that you are available on social media. At the same time, it goes without saying that you cannot be online 24/7, but you assign someone to manage your social media account, while keeping yourself in the loop to ensure that your presentation is a genuine reflection of you as a customer-centric leader.

Block regular time slots in your calendar to interact with customers that are raising topics of relevance. You will be surprised how many new insights you will gain that you otherwise would have missed. 

Customer-Centric leaders clearly and consistently put the customer first. 

Is the customer always right?

"The customer is always right!" is a slogan which was popularised by pioneering and successful retailers such as Harry Gordon Selfridge and Marshall Field. 

Is the customer always right? "Well, of course not".  But dissatisfied, overly-demanding or unreasonable customers will always be part of your business. 

Regardless of whether the customer is right or wrong, your principle should be that the customer always comes first. The first reason is to ensure that all staff will do their utmost at all times to avoid public escalation and a potential backlash. Exemplary is the case of United Airlines in 2017.

Secondly, the question is how to interact with them as such that you are turning them into brand promoters? 

It's worth the investment as it turns out that dissatisfied customers often convert into your most vocal brand ambassadors in case you are able to win them back.

Your brand is negatively exposed in an instance 

At the same time, you as a leader have to figure out how to improve the service delivery processes, while empowering frontline staff to avoid, or de-escalate unwanted situations. Staff attitude, skills, and flexibility to improvise are key factors of success.

Lastly, as a leader, you have a major influence in choosing your customers by ensuring that your brand is clearly positioned, while your marketing communication messages are creating the right level of expectations amongst your target audience.

Customer-Centric leaders advocate for internal cross-functional collaboration.

Strategic Planning - owned by the management team - is the ultimate starting point of cross-functional collaboration. This is the moment in time when shared values, mission and ambition are translated into functional objective and strategies. Now the Chief Experience Officer (CXO) can create leverage by ensuring that each function in the organization is obtaining its own customer-centricity metrics gearing up for a superb customer experience.

Collaboration for a superb customer experience

Design Thinking

Based on the principles of 'design thinking', all functions, from finance, legal, and people management, to marketing, sales and operations should collaborate as one team with the goal to create the ultimate customer experience.

For instance, does this mean that finance should forget about their financial metrics? On the contrary! In addition to their regular KPIs such as cash flow and ROCE, finance should make it their mission to link higher customer retention to the bottom line of the organization.

Customer-Centric leaders engage with frontline staff to understand their issues related to the customer experience. 

Frontline staff plays an essential role in the customer experience journey. After all, they are interacting with customers on a daily basis and have developed a very good sense of what customers are appreciating and where the frontline process is creating issues.

Unfortunately, often they are disengaged due to the fact that they are dealing with repetitive customer issues while they are not able to do something about it. Or worse, they addressed the issue several times while "no one" of higher management is listening to them.

Front-line staff are providing relevant details that do make the difference

In order for you as a leader to know whether or not there is a disconnect between the 'frontline' and yourself, you should be on the work floor on a regular basis. A very important positive spin-off of your regular visits is a huge appreciation by your operational staff.

Customer-Centric leaders hire the right people. 

"Hire for attitude, train for skills" is a phrase that is used increasingly by organization experts. There are two important reasons behind this relatively new line of thought. The first reason is that a customer-centric organization needs leaders and staff members who are thinking from a Customer-Centric perspective.

Staff attitude is essential 

Throughout your company, you need people who are able to empathize with the customer's needs and wishes; people with a natural ability to perceive the customer experience process from a customer's perspective.

Secondly, you need leaders and staff members that are engaged with your brand and the customer. Staff engagement is a crucial driver of a successful implementation of Customer Centricity. Gallup research shows that worldwide, just 13% of employees are engaged. They are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. The remaining 87% of employees are either not engaged or indifferent -- or even worse, actively disengaged and potentially hostile -- to their organization.  

Customer-Centric leaders sit on top of customer metrics and act accordingly. 

Firstly, as a Customer-Centric leader, you ensure that you have insight in all leading customer metrics on a weekly, monthly, and quarterly basis. Leading metrics give you an excellent prediction of future lagging indicators like revenue, profit margin, and cash flow.

Secondly, it's essential that you act upon negative indicators instantly and follow through until the root cause has been identified, dealt with effectively, and monitored so that the trend is going into the right direction again.