Customer-Obsessed Leadership

Only “customer-obsessed leaders” can create customer-centric companies. There are many great examples of these types of leaders including Walt Disney, Howard Schulz of Starbucks, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tony Hsieh of Zappos, Horst Schulze of Ritz Carlton and countless others. Each of these leaders have very different businesses and often very different customers. They do, however, all share the same unwavering understanding that customers are the most critical asset in business. The leaders of some of today’s most successful homebuilding companies also share a similar passion with these customer-obsessed leaders from other industries. Customer-centric homebuilders have leveraged the customer experience as a key differentiator from the competition and the effort is generating great returns.

Working Outside-In

While many traditional companies tend to work from the “inside-out,” companies that are true customer experience leaders build products and design processes working from the “outside-in.” Many traditional companies strategize from behind closed board room doors on how to improve products or processes. Those companies then move outwards to broadcast those ideas to customers with the hope of uptake and success. To work from the “outside-in” means involving or even collaborating with customers and then taking the heightened understanding of customer needs back into product and process development.

Keeping profound customer needs in the crosshairs of every business decision is what differentiates many successful companies from their competitors. The leaders of these types of companies recognize that this feat requires more than just assembling a team willing to listen to customers. It takes a company culture that craves to truly understand customers.

The “Empty Chair”

There are few business leaders more obsessive when it comes to serving customers than Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon. Bezos is passionate about customers and works relentlessly to foster a company culture that shares his passion. Bezos is well known for leaving one seat open around the table in a meeting and letting all participants know that seat is for their customer, “the most important person in the room.” This “empty chair” example has been discussed in numerous articles and interviews about Amazon and illustrates just one of the differences in the Amazon-way of thinking.

Nevertheless, it takes much more than just symbolic gestures or kindhearted mission statements to create a customer-centric culture in a company. It takes leadership, commitment and meticulous practice. Amazon is reputed to require all employees and managers, including Bezos, to spend two days per year in call-centre training. The objective is to provide each team member with front-line exposure to customers to help develop an increased understanding of customer needs throughout the company. That front-line exposure and enhanced customer understanding then flows back into each area of the company. These types of activities help to infuse Amazon’s decision-making process with “customer desires.” Several progressive homebuilders have adopted similar practices and have all team members spend time in customer-facing roles to enhance customer empathy within the company.

People Passion

“When you’re surrounded by people who share a passionate commitment around a common purpose, anything is possible,” according to Howard Schultz, Chairman and CEO of Starbucks. Loyalty leaders have found a way to convey a vision, create a passionate team and nurture an environment for synergy ─ where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Some common beliefs and practices shared by many customer-obsessed leaders include:

  • Focus on the “why” of the company more than the “what”
  • Hire, train, reward and promote customer-obsessed employees and managers
  • Measure to manage ─ metrics are vital
  • Trust front-line employees to take care of customers
  • Empower front-line employees to do what’s right for customers
  • Provide real-time feedback to all employees
  • Share and celebrate customer success stories openly and often

Customer Obsession Delivers Returns

“You can design and create and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality,” according to Walt Disney. Disney was a true pioneer in customer-obsessed leadership and many other leaders have followed that path. These bold leaders have proven that customer-obsessed leadership not only results in increased customer satisfaction, but it also delivers tremendous returns.

Tim Bailey is Division President of Avid Ratings Canada, a leading provider of customer loyalty research and consulting to the homebuilding industry. Through the Avid system, industry-leading clients improve referrals, reduce warranty costs, and strengthen their brand. He can be reached at tim.bailey@avidratings.ca.

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