Over the last six months I’ve been speaking with numerous leaders, from CEOs to Chief Customer Officers, as well as top thought leaders who are passionate about this journey of becoming more customer centric.
I’ve consistently observed leadership traits or principles that embody what it takes to make gains in the area of customer centricity. Some of these traits are methods, some mindsets, and some are motivation, and I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned.
Read ahead and discover the 5 leadership principles that lead to measurable progress on becoming a customer centric leader.
1. Identify the biggest problem
First, a customer centric leader is passionate about understanding the customer’s problem they are trying to solve. Once the biggest problem is identified, the focus is on building a bridge from that problem to the desired outcome they want the customer to experience.
It’s about going beyond selling products or services. It's about re-adjusting the focal point of the organization’s lens to be first and foremost on the question: “Is this idea, product offering, or service going to solve a real problem the customer has?”
A CASE STUDY
A good example of this passion for problem-solving is the story of Young Nails. Young Nails is a privately held professional nail products manufacturer started by the mom Young Solo and now run by her and her two sons, Greg and Habib.
Four years ago, Young Nails did things the traditional way like other nail product manufacturers did -- selling through trade shows, magazines, and traditional marketing channels, focusing on distributors and nail salons. Business was declining and nothing they tried was turning it around. Habib had an epiphany: they needed to reach customers differently -- the way they wanted to be reached -- and provide solutions to real customer problems vs. just banging on about offers and new items.
So they pivoted and began producing at least one solution a day to the nail salon owners’ real problems.
At first it wasn’t perfect, but they stayed at it. Eventually, customers began to notice and Young Nails became an important and trusted resource to their nail needs and challenges.
Fast forward three years to today, and Habib and his team produce about 70 pieces of content a day, have over 5 million followers and 100m views across their social channels. But most importantly, customers have rewarded them with orders. Loads of orders. Their business has been growing exponentially, way beyond what they had imagined.
As Habib would tell it, what’s really interesting about their story is how one small pivot has transformed their business and lives.
Focusing on providing solutions to customer problems every single day has transformed their entire company to have an incredible customer intimacy that shapes everything they do.
2. Understand company culture
The second observation about great customer centric leaders is they understand that leading change and moving an organization forward has to fit within the culture of the company and changes have to be sequenced in a way that builds momentum.
Those that don’t do well leading change are the ones who are so zealous about becoming customer centric that they get too far ahead of the organization and out of harmony with the operations.
RECOGNIZE BLIND SPOTS
This shows up especially when pushing full-force for major technology investments in customer technology, data warehouses, AI, optimization, and major tech stack changes in order to build a digital ecosystem. Or it might happen with pushing for rapid and total expansion of Agile, in spite of the realities of the culture. Because there is so much to be gained by being customer centric, the passion to invent the future overnight can create a blindness to the amount of change to culture and disruption to hitting Friday’s payroll. Great customer centric leaders, at least the ones who endure over time, know how to harmonize hitting Friday’s payroll with inventing the future.
In my podcast interview with Paco Underhill, an industry legend in understanding customer behavior, I was reminded how a very low-tech solution, going out and observing customers in homes or in stores, is still one of the most powerful tools to find customer epiphanies. It reminded me of a simple fact from my own experience -- I’ve never seen a spreadsheet or customer dashboard reveal a human truth that led to a breakthrough. I’m not anti-technology; far from it. It is simply an observation that being more customer centric doesn’t have to wait on the perfect technology infrastructure. Sometimes old fashioned boots on the ground and in stores will reveal more than technology ever will.
3. Build healthy idea ecosystems
The third observation is successful customer centric leaders instinctively know the best ideas to solve customer problems aren’t going to come from the top but from the people working with customers day in and day out.
And because they know this, they resist the temptation to cascade directives and solutions, but focus instead on building healthy idea ecosystems that enable fast implementation of new ideas, quick testing, and then adapt and scale.
They focus on asking the right questions vs. having the answers, which is quite uncomfortable for most senior leaders.
They also know you have to nourish and reward right-brain thinkers who fall in love with the problem and really explore the art of the possible vs. the more traditional left-brain thinking that quickly jumps to a solution before really taking time to understand the problem.
4. Quantity reveals the right quality
My fourth observation is they understand quantity over quality and aren’t paralyzed by perfection. They have a keen awareness that the customer knows what works best and respect them enough to let customers judge what brings value vs. relying just on their own opinions.
Through a quantity of ideas, they listen instantly to customer feedback and make adjustments, and quality goes up. They are not fixated on building the Queen Mary while the customer’s canoe is sinking. They know quantity reveals the right quality.
If you don’t believe me, I’ll put you in touch with Habib at Young Nails. He is a walking case study.
5. Employee co-creation increases satisfaction (and delights the customer)
My fifth, final, and most important observation is that every single customer centric leader that is seeing real growth from their efforts understands at a deep level that you ship your organization, and any journey to be more customer centric is a total employee journey first and foremost.
You just can’t be customer centric and show empathy for customers if you don’t show empathy for employees. A hallmark of the best customer centric leaders are the ones who invite others in to co-create solutions.
When companies use small, multi-disciplinary Agile teams to co-create solutions that delight the customer, engagement and satisfaction go up, often as much as 30%. Employees feel when they are actively co-creating solutions for customer problems their work is more meaningful and fulfilling.
I heard this truth reinforced from my conversation with Jeff Swearingen, the Global SVP of Demand Acceleration at Pepsi who has spent a career leading pioneering efforts to be customer centric. For Jeff: it’s all about culture and people first in order to create a culture where ideas can flourish.
Being a great customer centric leader is about being a people centric leader.
When we ditch the labels and start seeing customers as people and employees as people, our methods and mindsets become more empathetic and human.
In my first conversation with Rishad Tobaccowala, industry futurist and best selling author of Restoring The Soul Of Business: How To Be Human In The Age Of Digital, the very first thing he said was:
“You need to stop using the word customer….they’re people first!
Rishad is right.
It is a trap to see a customer centric journey as a digital or technology project? It is not. It is a human journey enabled by technology, full stop.
To learn more about customer centric leadership, check out my 5 Big Questions Checklist & 5-Part Video Series, which will help to get you started on your journey.
What do you think a great customer centric leader looks like? Leave a comment and share your ideas!