How Leading from a Customer Centric Culture Builds Trust and High Performance

How Leading from a Customer Centric Culture Builds Trust and High Performance

Creating a high trust culture boils down to every employee knowing they can rely on every person around them.  When employees trust management and the organisation, they are more willing to collaborate, share information, support each other and find ways to create synergy.  It means everyone is committed to performing at a high level and helping their peers achieve as well.

According to neuroscientific studies by Dr. Paul Zak, trust reduces social frictions and promotes cooperative behaviour among employees — enabling managers to create high-trust, high-performance teams.

Employees that don’t trust those around them, close down.  In a low trust environment, the safest choice is to find excuses and rein in effort and commitment.  It means employees won’t contribute in meetings, raise issues or try anything new.  It stops innovation, team cohesion and increases the likelihood of psychological illness claims.

How do you get people to contribute, challenge one another and find work fulfilling?

In my work helping leaders build trust in their organisations, the companies that build trust the most efficiently are the ones where the senior leadership team acknowledge that their role is to get out of the way and enable employees to provide the best customer experience.   Depending upon the type of enterprise, that could be patients, students, consumers, business clients and so on.

Seems like an obvious statement to say in the 21st century, but the reality is that for many leaders it’s harder to do in practice.

Despite their best efforts, leaders have to avoid the natural temptation of being micromanagers.  Leaders might have the noble intention to start with trust, provide autonomy and empower people.  But paraphrasing Dom Price, Head of Research and Development,  at Atlassian “They wake up one morning, get nervous and fly in and help.  All they do is distract and disrupt.  They are labelled pigeon bosses because they fly in, sh#* everywhere and fly out again.  But it’s not malicious.”

In essence, leaders must remove roadblocks and bottlenecks so people can do their best work in service of a shared goal.   In companies, people get so used to roadblocks from poor decision making, communication or planning that they learn to work around issues.  This greatly reduces productivity and even morale.  To get around these common workplace problems requires leaders who efficiently provide frontline workers with the right resources, tools, decisions, and support to help customers.

For organisations to lead with trust, the CEO and top team (with full support from the board) must engineer the supporting organisational infrastructure to embed trust from top to bottom.  This also requires leadership to understand that their role is to facilitate the frontline to do their best work and respect their job and knowledge.  It’s about controlling the process, not the people.  But it’s not about designing systems and processes in isolation.

It requires executives clearly understanding and being in alignment with, the optimal customer experience the frontline needs to deliver, so they can reverse engineer the right company architecture that supports the customer brand promise.

The missing link?   Capturing accurate and informative frontline feedback that aids in the creation of the strategy to feed into the customer experience design.

The best global brands understand this.  Take Apple.  Frontline staff are called “Geniuses.”  Their job title explicitly communicates the important role of frontline employees in solving clients problems and providing the best service.   But it’s more than just slapping on a life-affirming title.  Apple has engineered all the right support and training to ensure their Geniuses rightfully earn their moniker by customers.

The reality is that collecting frontline feedback to guide the overarching strategy and then aligning company processes and leadership to support the customer experience isn’t easy.  Few organisations are set up to do this or get it right.  Based on best practices, here are four steps to design a client centric approach that builds trust:

1. Understand Customer Needs

“Improvement starts with feedback from the front line.””
Peter Drucker

Before the CEO and executives craft the optimal customer experience, they must develop the company strategy.  This means collecting a whole lot of internal and external data.

It involves having a clear understanding of the external environment using secondary information – for example, consumer and social developments, trends, changes in technology,  product innovation, and distribution.  Typically, this information is quantitative and provides a one-sided perspective.

The best data is primary and is a combination of quantitative metrics such as customer satisfaction survey results combined with qualitative insights. 

Successful companies do this well.  Each week, leaders spend actual face to face time asking customers and employees how things are going.  This includes industry-based conversations (including talking to advisors) and noting customer observations.

Take Walmart.  Each week, from Monday through to Thursday, leaders are out in the field visiting Walmart stores and their competitors.  On Fridays, they report what they learned and executives read all of the quantitative data, as well as the qualitative intelligence.

At GE, all salespeople must communicate daily or weekly what they hear about competitors and learn in the field from customers.  This information is rapidly disseminated to the rest of its team.

This benefits the enterprise two-fold.  First, it means leaders are removing bottlenecks and untangling problems to help those on the front line deliver to customers.  Second of all, it also means that leaders are really finding out what is going on in the marketplace, so they get real-time information that is crucial to confidently refining the right strategies.

“Leaders who are connected have distilled the challenges facing the business until they are visiting into a half dozen or fewer fundamental issues.  Being present allows you, as a leader, to connect personally with your people, and personal connections help you build your intuitive feel for the business, as well as for people running the business.”
Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan from the book, Execution

In low trust companies, leaders are disconnected from customers and employees.  They prefer to rely on conjecture, an exciting talk at a conference, quantitative customer satisfaction data or filtered employee reports.  Unfortunately, when employees don’t trust leadership, they present intelligence that is based on their filters and personal agendas.  This inevitably produces a mish-mash of poor quality strategies that don’t get executed or fail in the marketplace.

2. Align the Strategy to the Best Customer Experience

With the right market and employee feedback,
an outside-in perspective helps correctly forecast and formulate the right strategy

Once the strategy is created, the CEO and top team get clear on the type of customer experience they expect the frontline to provide, so they can help engineer the supporting organisational infrastructure for execution.

This involves the CEO and senior leaders designing the right structures, processes, and communication that empowers the front line to add value when engaging with customers.  This includes flattening the hierarchy so that line managers are there to assist the frontline in answering questions, ensuring compliance and removing bottlenecks.

With any new strategy, this requires assessing whether the organisation has the right skills and capabilities that match the level of service needed to fulfill the customer value proposition.  This includes assessing the complexity of transactions and the level of judgement required by the frontline.  Identifying skills gaps (both soft and hard, in order to deliver on service, collaborate on issues and innovate) and allocating resources is an important senior leader task.

3. Provide Employees with the Autonomy to Deliver

“The most vital is co-ordinating the talents of those who work for us and pointing them towards a certain goal.”
Walt Disney

After the organisational strategy has been effectively communicated and employees understand it, then training is required to empower them to make customer-friendly decisions that protect the business’s long-term health.  This requires continuous teaching, coaching, and discussion of how to apply the right decisions. 

In the book, Judgment on the Front Line, by Chris DeRose and Noel M. Tichy, they believe a common problem-solving framework engenders trust and enables those at senior and mid-levels to act as coaches instead of dictating answers.  

For example, the Ritz-Carlton uses a five-step decision-making framework to teach employees how to make the right decisions for customers.  Every day, at 9 am at every hotel around the globe, a leader facilitates a 15-minute Line-Up meeting to continuously embed and coach employees on how to solve a customer or service challenge.   Housekeepers right through to floor managers, convene to review guest experiences, resolve issues and identify ways to improve service.  Three times a day, at over 70 properties, 365 days a year front-line employees are constantly learning how to solve customer problems at considerable expense.  

Yet, the Ritz-Carlton considers this training highly valuable to support employees in solving guests issues daily.  It provides employees with confidence in their abilities underpinned by the knowledge that leadership expects them to step into a creative-problem solving mode when things go wrong.  Furthermore, each employee is given a small, discretionary budget to solve a customer problem.  

People thrive in their jobs when they have autonomy and the power to control their work environment.  It also sends the message that leaders trust employees to do the right thing, which is one of the most important building blocks of trust.  Without autonomy, employees feel devalued and suffer poor mental health.  

4. Provide the Right Feedback Loops

The most critical function in supporting the frontline is often the most difficult (see 5 Silent Killers to Building a High-Performance Culture or 4 Common Areas where a Fear of Speaking Causes Major Business  Problems).

Feedback requires leaders who have the emotional fortitude to admit they don’t have all the answers, who are willing to tolerate a diversity of viewpoints and ask tough, incisive questions.  This requires leaders who see everyone as equal.   Rather than old-style leaders who look down at those they consider beneath their rank.

But it also means having open, transparent and honest conversations where leaders are willing to talk about the difficult stuff.  Otherwise, how do you work through problems or resolve conflicts if no one wants to talk about them?

Essentially, it involves leaders who have the skills to take the time to listen to employees and provide psychologically safe spaces for people to speak out about issues.  It also requires every employee demonstrating emotional maturity and discussing issues rather than complaining about them.   More importantly, there have to be the right feedback loops that ensure that information from the frontline is collected and actioned upon by senior leaders.

Designing a Client Centric Approach

In today’s fast-paced business world, the more trust you have across your organisation the faster you can operate.  

In essence, leadership is about removing roadblocks so people can do their best work in service of a shared goal.   To properly embed trust, it starts with the CEO and their top team, creating the right strategy and clearly understanding the optimal customer experience that the frontline needs to provide.   Then, doing what they can to delight customers with their brand promise through enabling those at the customer interface to swiftly solve customer problems and breakdowns in delivery.

This involves:

  • Involving your frontline to provide feedback to help formulate your competitive strategy. 
  • Developing or utilising software that facilitates departments sharing customer information in real time and collating best practices.
  • Fostering internal collaboration across the organisation to openly discuss the current state of play that considers the frontline experience. 
  • Providing frontline workers with the right resources, timely decisions, and training to help customers. 
  • Enabling employees to choose what to do, when and how to do it.
  • Acknowledging the important work of frontline staff and respecting their role.
  • Embedding the best systems of work that remove leadership control and interference to free people up to innovate and contribute.  
  • Training and coaching frontline staff to solve a customer or system problem that is aligned with the organisational strategy (and letting them make the occasional mistake).

The beauty of this methodology is that it provides leadership with the freedom to work on what they’re good at –  developing the strategic direction, identifying which resources to invest in and which customers to target.   Rather than being called in to constantly fight fires that distract from moving the company forward.  But not only that  – it leverages the wisdom of the crowd.   Everyone in the organisation is involved in creating the strategy and doing their best work to make the world a better place.  And isn’t that what work is really all about?

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Marie-Claire Ross is the Founder and Chief Corporate Catalyst at Trustologie. She is a workplace sociologist, author, speaker and consultant focused on helping leaders put the right processes in place to accelerate trust during change and growth. She does this through strategic diagnostics, roundtables, workshops, coaching and consulting. Marie-Claire is also the author of the number three ranked book on Amazon, Transform your Safety Communication. She has been interviewed on “Technology Behind Business” for Sky Business News and regularly contributes articles to FM Magazine and LogiSYM on company culture. She is also a Graduate of the Company Director’s Course and is on the SME Committee for the Australian Institute of Company Directors.


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