Leading an organization is a lot like trying to change the wheels on a bike while you’re still riding it. Half of the time you’re rethinking internal systems and how to assemble them in new ways. The other half, you’re just trying to keep the business running and avoid any major potholes. There are many different ways to drive an organization, but if you’re not thinking about customer experience at every touchpoint, it might be time for a tune-up.
Sales, Engineering, or Marketing?
If you’re a sales-led organization, you’re primarily focused on revenue, deals, price, and market share. You empower your sales team, invest in training, and drive a disciplined, well-executed process. At the end of the day, you want them to hit their quotas. This model can be very effective. The challenge is that each individual salesperson often creates their own tools to get the job done. This can result in an inconsistent brand experience, where every customer is getting a different version of the story. Moreover, a sales-over-everything culture can create burnout and impact your roadmap with one-off requirements that can’t be scaled across the customer base.
Hundreds of startups in Silicon Valley are engineering-led organizations, with a heavy focus on sophisticated software, data, and analytics. Code supersedes everything, and every possible process is optimized for iterating as fast as possible. When you move fast and break things, you can create something extraordinary. But you can also fall into the ideological trap of building just for the sake of it. It’s not that you can’t be successful, but you run the risk of creating feature-functions that don’t satisfy an unmet, underserved customer need.
Marketing-led organizations are all about researching and identifying products or services that your customer needs and wants. In theory, it’s a fantastic model that is mutually beneficial to both the customer and the organization. Unfortunately, in practice, there can be some barriers to entry. Startups, for example, often don’t have the luxury of being marketing-led, as they need to allocate their resources to engineering and sales. Marketing is something they’ll invest in later when they are doubling-down on growth. In addition, it can be trickier to get consensus in a marketing-led organization. Whereas sales and engineering have more objective metrics to fall back on, the success and execution of a marketing-led organization often hinges on whether it becomes an essential part of a company’s DNA.
Customer Experience is the Best Teacher
While all of these paradigms have their pros and cons, if your organization isn’t focused on customer experience at every touch point, it doesn’t matter which function is leading because you’ll be severely limiting your growth. The era of asymmetrical communications — top-down or inside-out, where companies push out messages in one direction — just isn’t working anymore. Customers are more informed, more dynamic, and have higher expectations than ever before. They are expecting a nuanced, two-way conversation. Plus, the link between online reputation and business performance is staggering. A recent study of the hospitality industry by Cornell University found that for every 1% improvement in a hotel’s online reputation, its revenue per available room improves by 1.4 percent.
Companies need to be receptive and customer-centric if they want to thrive in this climate. This starts with an authentic focus on providing a superior customer experience backed by a clearly articulated purpose. Why? Because purpose is not only contagious — it sustains growth. According to New York Times bestselling author Simon Mainwaring, 91% of consumers would switch brands if a different one was purpose-driven and had similar price and quality.
The Spirit of Customer-Centricity
Now, you might think that marketing is the only place for such a customer-centric mentality, but that’s not the case. One of the biggest mistakes you could make is thinking that the customer only interfaces with a singular marketing message or website. They interact through the product, through sales, they might be phoning client services or tweeting at a support channel. All of those touch points have to represent the company and brand in a meaningful way.
If you’re a VP of Engineering, chances are you don’t want your top brains spending a lot of face-time with a customer. You want them in front of the screen where they can put their talent to work. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to instill a spirit of customer-centricity in their role.
For instance, product managers should be regularly analyzing the interactions of the customer with the product, as well as talking with customers directly, so they can turn those insights into requirements for engineers. It’s about getting the perfect balance of qualitative and quantitative inputs. If you don’t consistently remind your employees who they are building for, they can lose track of the “Why?” — that larger, aspirational goal of why you’re building products in the first place. Here are some tangible steps every organization can take to create a culture of customer-centricity.
6 Steps to Refocusing on the Customer
- Don’t make assumptions about your customers. I’ve been in countless meetings where someone quickly whiteboards a customer journey — all without ever talking to a real customer. When NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton was tasked with reducing crime in New York, he didn’t just read reports — he rode the rails himself. Quantitative data will get you far, but you can’t really put yourself in the customer’s shoes without qualitative data. That’s how you truly get an outside-in perspective.
- With B2B, never forget the customer’s customer. When you’re working with a large enterprise, it’s easy to forget the effects your decisions will have on an individual. You must think all the way through the customer journey. Try to create meaningful outcomes at every step in the process.
- In the B2B marketplace, you should design with the same love and attention to detail as you would for consumer products. You may think, “I don’t care how it looks, it just needs to work,” but in an increasingly crowded marketplace, creating differentiation through a delightful customer experience is key.
- Never underestimate the power of authentic customer stories. They serve as great collateral for sales, marketing, social media, and remind those in your company who don’t get to interact directly with customers of the impact they are making. Currently, 71% of millennials report feeling not engaged at work. But if you’re able to create a situation where employees derive meaning from their work, everything changes. A recent Harvard Business Review study found that employees who derive meaning from their work report almost twice the job satisfaction and are three times more likely to stay with their organization to fuel business success.
- Consider your partners. Especially if you’re a B2B selling through a channel, you need to be cognizant of the needs of your partners, as well as your customers. How you show up to your customers is incredibly important, and that’s why you must always maintain brand integrity through each and every channel.
- Executive alignment is everything. When you get alignment at the highest level, it cascades throughout the whole company, ensuring that all functions are cohesive and onboard.
Customer-Centric ≠ Customer-Led
You may have noticed that I have avoided the phrase customer-led. There’s a key difference between being customer-centric and customer-led. As Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Everything you do should be aimed at creating a fantastic customer experience. Nonetheless, you don’t want people-pleasing to get in the way of innovation. Customer feedback is incredibly important, but it can’t be the only data point. When that happens, it can lead to a dangerous feedback loop that creates tunnel vision. Trust your team, create an environment for risk-taking, and then go test the results.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter conceptually who is driving the company. What matters is that everyone deeply understands the pain points of the customers they serve. Everyone, regardless of role, should have a relationship with the customer.
As a leader, you need to facilitate an internal evolution where employees are not only passionate but can see the real-world results of their work. Belief is one of the most powerful tools in business. When people believe in what they are doing, they work harder, smarter, and with their whole hearts.
Emotive Brand is a brand strategy and design agency based in San Francisco.