How to Build a Customer-Obsessed Culture

Published July 22, 2020
Last updated July 22, 2020

“The way a customer sees your business is a direct reflection of your internal culture,” says Ken Schmidt, former Director of Communication Strategy for Harley Davidson. Think about that for a minute… What message is your company culture communicating to your customers? Does it reflect a clear prioritization of them

Developing a customer-focused or even customer-obsessed culture is key to truly understanding and serving your customers. Here’s how to build this type of culture in your own organization.  

First — what is company culture? What are the benefits of a strong culture… and the drawbacks of a deficient one? 

Companies that have vibrant internal cultures foster an environment where employees feel nurtured, empowered, engaged, and inspired. Strong company cultures acknowledge and reward individuals in the group for creative and innovative successes, while leveraging failures as learning opportunities. Seeds of criticism and reprimand can’t take root in these types of ecosystems, providing room for creativity, collaboration, and innovation.

On the other hand, organizations with deficient internal cultures are filled with employees that are often fearful, inefficient, disloyal, and lacking motivation. These organizations are generally mired down with heavy burdens of policies, procedures, and protocols that stifle initiative and negatively impact the customer experience. Consumers interacting with culture-deficient companies, unsurprisingly, tend to differentiate on tangible factors such as price, forcing those businesses into a race to the bottom to acquire sales. 

What does it mean to have a customer-obsessed culture?

Many traditional companies tend to work from the “inside-out.” They strategize from behind closed doors before broadcasting their “new and improved” products and services to customers with the hope of uptake and success.  

Companies with a customer-obsessed culture, on the other hand — those that are true customer experience leaders — design products, services, and processes from the “outside-in.” This means they engage or even collaborate with customers before taking that heightened understanding of customer goals, challenges, and pain points back into product/service/process development. This is the essence of a customer-obsessed culture: keeping customer needs in the crosshairs of every business decision. 

How can I work to develop a customer-centric culture? 

It starts at the top: only customer-obsessed leaders can create customer-centric companies. There are many examples of these types of customer-focused leaders: Walt Disney, Howard Schulz of Starbucks, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tony Hsieh of Zappos, Horst Schulze of Ritz Carlton, and countless others. While each of these leaders run (or ran) very different businesses, they all share an unwavering understanding that their customer is their most important business asset. 

Jeff Bezos and the “Empty Chair” 

There are few business leaders more obsessive when it comes to serving customers than Jeff Bezos. Bezos is passionate about customers and works relentlessly to foster a company culture that shares his passion. He’s well-known for leaving an empty chair at the table during meetings and letting all participants know that the seat is for their customer: “the most important person in the room.” 

Amazon is also reputed to require all employees and managers, including Bezos, to spend two days per year in call center training. The objective? To provide each team member with direct exposure to customers so that all employees can develop a clear understanding of customer needs.


5 Tips for Customer-Centricity

Some common beliefs and practices shared by many customer-obsessed leaders include the following. If you’re looking to infuse more customer-centricity into your own culture, take these to heart.

  • Focus on your company’s “why” — not just your “what”
  • Hire, train, reward, and promote customer-obsessed employees and managers
  • Empower front line employees to take care of customers… and then trust them to do what’s right
  • Provide real-time feedback to all employees
  • Share and celebrate customer success stories openly and often 

Building homes? First, take a look at building your culture.

Let’s discuss customer-obsessed culture in the context of the homebuilding industry. When it comes to choosing a home builder, today’s home buyers have an overwhelming amount of choice. Often, differentiating between several high-quality builders is complicated, as features and benefits from builder to builder are barely distinguishable to the average home buyer. 

To combat this, leading home builders are leveraging emotional connections to transcend features and benefits and engage home buyers. People don’t do business with products: they do business with people. Forming positive emotional connections with customers is essential. These emotional connections begin within the organization and then extend outwards to customers. An internal “culture of caring” is the foundation needed to build a strong customer community filled with brand evangelists. 

“Culture of caring”: real-world examples

A strong, customer-focused “culture of caring” is one that can be trusted by both employee and customer. A site supervisor that acts in the best interest of a customer when faced with an issue that could jeopardize the customer experience doesn’t fear being reprimanded in a strong culture of caring. A warranty service representative that spends a bit more time or money to create a customer “win” during a tough service call is excited to share the story in a strong culture of caring. These actions may not strictly adhere to “company policy,” but if they fulfill the “customer promise,” they’re in keeping with the expectations of a strong, customer-centric internal culture. 

When it comes down to it, competitors can copy a product or replicate a technology but no competitor can ever duplicate a culture. The internal culture of an organization provides the company with the opportunity to leave its own unique fingerprint on the customer experience. And that is the ultimate value differentiator in today’s competitive world. 

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