Creating a Culture-First Approach to Customer Experience

August 6, 2019

Customer experience

Conventional approaches to building a customer-centric culture involve topics such as putting the customer first, building business units that obsess over customer needs, deploying technology platforms that appeal to every customer need, and creating programs that link customer preferences to corporate priorities.

While all of these are important initiatives, none of them will ever be sustainable without the commitment and conviction of the people who design, build, and implement the programs and serve the customer every day. Building a world-class culture based on shared values, inclusion, compassion, and lateral service must come before any customer-centric focus to drive real success.

Customer experience and The Ritz-Carlton

One of the most studied cultural phenomenons in the business world is The Ritz-Carlton. For more than 30 years, this company has been delivering exceptional customer experience (CX) through a culture-first approach that wins J.D. Power awards for best-in-class service and countless other top accolades.

Why is The Ritz-Carlton so successful when other organizations struggle to build—never mind sustain—an exceptional culture? After studying The Ritz-Carlton approach and implementing it for other companies, I’ve seen that it comes down to a simple principle. The hotel chain has adopted an approach to culture creation that can be deduced into the following core values:

Hire for culture first. Vocational skills can be taught and refined over time. Attitude, selflessness, compassion, positive outlook, work ethic, and heart for serving others are essential to creating a powerful foundation for CX, and those cannot be taught. Today, many tools and approaches allow companies to adopt a model of cultural fit during the hiring process.

For companies that have a legacy workforce in place, there are many opportunities to engage existing employees in the culture refinement process to ensure co-creation and buy-in. Over time, strong cultures will self-select out employees who do not fit.

Create emotional connections to the brand. Employees that are strongly connected to your company through a set of positive emotional experiences will express that positive experience to others.

The employee experience should be treated as an emotional engaging journey that starts from the hiring process and continues through onboarding to anniversary celebrations, community service commitments, and recognition—every aspect of the employee’s journey. If you treat each employee program as an opportunity to create an emotional event, you will have a workforce that is not only personally connected to the brand but also your biggest and most authentic ambassadors.

Implement the CX foundation with lateral service, empowerment, and first-party resolution. These three important principles stand out as nonnegotiable foundations of a meaningful and sustainable customer-centric culture.

  • Lateral service is the idea that any employee should be willing to step up and help another employee complete a task or a job at any time, regardless of role or level. This principle is core to CX because it enables load balancing for care of customers at critical moments that can otherwise produce failures in the system.
  • Empowerment is a core feature of creating a culture of trust and service. At The Ritz-Carlton, this operating principle means that each employee, regardless of level, is authorized and empowered to resolve, delight, or serve customers using the financial and human resources of the company without prior approval. This company-wide commitment underpins the ability of each employee to be a key architect of creating memorable experiences for guests.
  • First-party resolution focuses on ensuring that when a customer expresses a need or a concern to an employee, that employee resolves it without passing it to another person. This is directly tied to the concept of empowerment—the employee must have the power to resolve the concern and the mandate to step away, if required, from a current task to be able to activate the resolution. Studies show that first-party resolution has a tremendous positive impact on satisfaction scores and brand loyalty.

Build anticipatory service. Anyone can ask, “How may I help you?” The magic of superior service, and ultimately superior CX, is being able to anticipate needs and desires. This requires a workforce that fundamentally wants to read human behavior and make calculated decisions about what that behavior might tell us about an individual.

This also applies to online, digital, and app experiences. The more you can personalize and anticipate a need, or surprise and delight through those channels, the deeper the relationship you can drive. If you are investing in chatbots, go the extra step and invest in machine learning that can assist in making the bot engagement personal and relevant based on online behavior.

Whether you are implementing a chatbot or driving an in-person connection, both channels reflect your culture and the value you place on genuine connections. This culture is clearly visible to your customers and guests, and ultimately drives a special sense of being “known” and “understood” in consumers that differentiates a brand from the competition by tapping into fundamental human psychology.

Create the psychological power of belonging to a tribe. Sociologists have studied groups, tribes, and communities for decades, and the power of human belonging cannot be understated. If you can recruit, hire, empower, and maintain an employee base driven by shared values, you will inherently have a workforce dedicated to delivering great experiences to each other and to customers.

Creating an exceptional culture that builds a cohesive organization may take time and a long-term commitment, but the payoff to any brand or company is felt through the customer experience.

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About The Author

Antonia Hock is the global head of The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center, a consulting and advisory firm helping organizations create exceptional employee and customer experience since 1999.

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