How Do You Inspire Employees to Care About Customers?

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I hear this question all the time from leaders who want to establish a culture of customer centricity in their organizations. They understand how important it is, but they don’t know how to be most effective in impressing this mission on employees.

Think about these things to raise your odds of a caring team:

Draw Upon Your Own Memories of Good Customer Service

All of us are lifelong customers and have undoubtedly had both positive and negative experiences. Here’s an empathy-building exercise we use with our own clients. It’s proven useful as a way to encouraging compassion.

We ask attendees to bring to mind a positive or negative experience that they’ve had as a customer, and then analyze the elements that led to the emotional response. Why was the situation so memorable that it still resonates?

More often than not this experience brings back strong emotions, and participants get excited or even angry recalling their experiences. At that point we ask the participants to identify whether their current company has engendered any negative experiences. If their answer is yes, our next question is this: How can the organization permit this to happen when, as individuals, we’ve just seen the evidence of how powerful the positive customer service experience can be?

This spurs spirited discussion and engages people emotionally and intellectually. First they try to understand why negative experiences might be happening, and then confer about how to make sure that negative outcomes are the rare exception.

A Mindset of Service

Everyone in an organization, ideally, is willing to collaborate to create value. Consider popular and successful companies like Apple or Amazon, where teams bring new ideas to life for millions. A service culture encourages all employees to work together for the benefit of the brand. This service culture has another benefit — it helps employees to examine the impact of all their decisions.

Get Close to Customers

A key challenge in large organizations is the distance many leaders and employees put between themselves and direct customer feedback. The truth is simple, though. There is nothing more powerful than hearing directly from customers. Hearing something secondhand strips out the emotion and the context.

Another exercise we encourage is having managers and employees hear directly from customers in open forums or focus groups. The goal is to go beyond gathering information or gaining new insights, to understand how the customer perceives the brand. It’s usually enlightening — and almost always the lessons are unexpected ones.  

Set Expectations and Grant Permission to Care

It sounds counterintuitive, but the fact is that in many businesses, customers are an afterthought (“We’ve built a better mousetrap — everyone will love it!”). Employees may not even be encouraged to factor customers into their decision-making processes.

There are limited rewards and little recognition for people who go the extra mile for customers in this kind of environment.

As a result of this attitude, customer considerations sometimes come last. The result of this sad truth is a lack of real passion for customers except in the case of a small number of employees who truly believe that customers are the heart of the business and their needs should be front and center. Of course, a few such employees are not enough.

Customers have been identified in endless studies and documentation to be the gating factor for a successful business. Set a consistent lead with employees and give them permission to care. Leaders and managers can hold themselves to the highest standards of customer care — and be visible role models. Over time, tolerance for anything less than stellar care won’t be tolerated.

The NRMA in Australia (similar to AAA in the US) gave their employees permission to care by issuing a statement to all employees that they could “break all the rules for the customer.”

Employees took it to heart. There are numerous heartwarming stories about the company’s roadside assistance service. Staff regularly go the extra mile for customers when they are at their most vulnerable. The brand flourishes.

What can you do to ensure employees act in the best interests of customers?