Never-ending to-do lists, department priorities, and bosses who require you to switch focus to action on their “big new idea” at the drop of a hat. That’s the day-to-day reality for most people in any business.
Then, you turn up to people’s desks like an unwelcome door-to-door salesperson, trying to convince them of the virtues of customer-centricity. You’re not just adding more to their plate but also to think about new ways of working—ways that may conflict with their current priorities.
So how do you convince people with little motivation—throughout the entire business—to focus more on your customers? I spoke to six customer-focused leaders in a range of businesses and roles to see how they got people in their businesses to care.
Here are their top four recommendations.
1. Give people the data
Data is incredibly powerful, helping to motivate and convince—but not if you use it (as politicians do) to support a narrative. When collected and used without bias, however, it’s hard for anyone to refute what’s staring back at them in black and white.
So how can data help you?
Marty Hayes, Online Business Manager for UK Consumers at Dell Technologies, uses data to show people why customer centricity is important and to get people to start questioning opinions:
I once worked for an online womenswear retailer, where our target market was fast-fashion-craving teenage girls and young women. The CEO, a 40-something man, thought he knew what was best in terms of creative, copy, user experience, and value proposition.
Once he saw videos from What Users Do of real customers trying to use the site, pointing out where things didn’t quite resonate or sounded contrived, and shared suggestions for improvements, the penny started to drop that he wasn’t our customer, and that they probably knew best.
Show the financial impact
Sometimes, data isn’t enough to convince people of your cause, especially at the top of the business, where people weigh the costs of making changes in the business.
Hayes explained how to persuade the C-suite when data alone isn’t enough:
If you can’t win the argument on data alone, I’ve found that modeling an improved conversion rate based on incremental customer experience improvements can get the wheels in motion. Money talks, and if you can show that, by improving the customer experience, it might lead to a 1% increase in conversion, and that could lead to $XXXX more revenue per year, that can help put things into context.
Share data or insights company-wide
It’s not just the top of the business that needs to hear things directly from the customer. As Chang Chen, Head of Growth & Marketing at Otter.ai explained:
Everything any team does will have an impact on the user experience, from back-end engineers to customer success specialists. Enabling our teams to hear directly from the customer, to gain insights on how our product is impacting their work and life, is the key to aligning the teams. We record, transcribe, and summarize all our customer interviews and share every single one of them.
But there’s a downside to giving everyone access to customer data, something Dan Moross, Customer Experience Director at Moo, found:
Some people will be looking at only one data point. And it doesn't mean anything unless you can join it with all the other data. It’s always been a bit of a challenge—people making assumptions based on very little information.
Chen offered a common example:
The customers we talk to might not be representative of our target customers. If we focus too much on one customer's feedback, we might be sidetracked and might not drive a better user experience for the majority of our customers. We need to collect enough feedback and focus on the customers in our targeted segments, as well as combining the quantitative data with the qualitative data to validate the learnings.
To avoid these situations, you could produce insight reports for teams, analyzing the data and triangulating findings to ensure the data isn’t misinterpreted. Putting the findings into a context that different teams understand can help.
For example, rather than just giving the ecommerce team data on searches that return no results on the site, Hayes presented his findings in this context:
If a customer searches for a product that they don’t stock, they’ll likely reach a “no results found” page. Imagine that replicated as a real-world experience–a potential customer walks into your shop and asks the sales assistant if you sell XYZ, and the member of staff just says “nope” and walks off. I don’t think that customers would stay in the shop very long. Relating it to the in-store experience seems to really work in terms of highlighting issues and opportunities for improvement.
2. Help teams experiment
Once you start sharing customer data or insights, teams will want to start making improvements. It might feel like you’ve achieved what you set out to do, but the hard work doesn’t stop here.
Some new ideas or initiatives can be costly but result in big payoffs. Others can actually make things worse for your customers and harm revenue. Unless you’re providing teams a scientific way to test these ideas, you won't know which is which.
Moross talked about how he came to this conclusion at Moo:
Something I learned a lot from joining with the design team is you shouldn't just build a thing that takes you a year and put it out and hope it's going to work. You should do something over a course of a month to a subset of customers, and then tweak it and iterate it.
So how can you help your teams manage the risk of implementing new ideas?
Create a center of excellence
Rather than employing experts in customer research, UX, psychology, testing, optimisation, and data analytics into every team across the business, you can create a “center of excellence” (CoE)—one expert team that works across the business, either performing the experimentation tasks for other teams or running education programmes to help upskill others to experiment.
Sometimes, this function has an expiration date—once other teams are upskilled, the CoE disbands. In other cases, it’s a permanent fixture and a source of innovation. They’re usually put in place to help govern the overall approach to customer-centricity and experimentation, setting working practices across teams (e.g., agile methodologies, aligning tools stacks).
Another important role of the CoE is helping with change management—communicating the CX work and results while also facilitating discussions across teams (when you still have functional teams) to get people working together on customer-centric improvements.
Our client Laura Borghesi, Senior Director of Growth Marketing at MongoDB, talked to us about how she created a CoE. At MongoDB, the growth team is divided into different parts of the user journey (e.g., acquisition, conversion, onboarding, activation, etc.).
The CoE team is a layer that cuts across all growth teams. It’s not the job of the CoE team to own any part of the user experience but to enable other teams to run experiments in their areas.
At the beginning, Borghesi explained, a CoE team is likely to be more involved in actually running experiments for other teams. But down the line, their role is more about helping others run their own experiments. The CoE team then oversees the integrity of experiments being run across the company—ensuring that individual teams’ work fits into the overarching roadmap and that experiments are set up in different swim lanes.
The CoE team also helps with change management by getting everyone involved and excited about improving the CX. She said they hold bets on which experiment treatments will win when tested—something that everyone enjoys that also embeds a culture of customer centricity.
3. Get CCOs to represent
Whether it’s a Chief Customer Officer or Customer Experience Officer, to be successful in customer-centricity you need someone at the top who’s got the customers’ best interests at heart.
Grassroot changes can happen bottom up, but having a CCO who can influence people across the business—and has direct access to the CEO—will increase company-wide buy-in. McKinsey illustrates how this works in practice (and what you need if you don’t have a CCO in place):
4. Tweak your company structure
I can run as many workshops as I like to try and get people to be connected to the customer. And they might score high on “being customer-centric.” But if you don't have the right systems in place, and you don't have the right ways of working, then it’s just lip service.
Dan Moross of Moo
Most of us work in teams organized around functions. Different departments have clear boundaries of what they work on. This functional-based structure means your teams are responsible only for small sections of the overall customer journey, meaning that they have to negotiate with and influence other departments to make holistic improvements.
While this functional structure might make sense internally, it can fail to produce a great, cohesive customer experience. One approach to tackle this is cross-functional teams organized around the customer (journeys or segments).
Tom Carrington Smith, Co-founder of CharlieHR, wrote about the issues he faced with functional teams that lead them to restructure the business:
We have the company set up in the obvious way. Four teams each focused on their role disciplines; product design, engineering, customer experience, and growth [. . . ] We found that everyone needed a touchpoint with everyone else at some point to hit their objective.
This was slowing us down, as it relied on a huge volume of communication (resulting in a lot of miscommunication) across the company [. . .] When we drilled down further into how departments were working together, we found that teams were often compromising their own objectives to fulfill other departments’ objectives.
This was building a feeling of scarcity, and the frustration levels were mounting.
But then he had the following conversation:
So he set about creating new cross-functional teams that looked more like this:
Simon Harrow, Chief Customer Officer at iG04, shared with me how they restructured their teams—and the benefit he’s seen since then:
Our solution was to formally bring together all the functions that customers would interact with. This created accountability for the customer experience across the functions and removed conflicting priorities when looking at operating models and the technology underpinning our capability.
This moves any issues from being within a company function to being centered on the customer. It also allows us to understand the impact of the problem across functions—where we can then prioritize activities and shape roadmaps with a holistic view of the customer impact.
Should you restructure to cross-functional teams?
Thirty percent of Fortune 500 firms already organize themselves around customer groups in cross-functional teams. But a reorg of your business functions isn’t right for everyone. A study quoted in the Harvard Business Review found that:
- 69% of businesses structured around their customers, which operated in highly competitive markets had lower performance compared to their product-centric peers.
- Businesses that reorganized to be customer-focused who were operating in low-profitability industries (where customers don’t particularly value customization or responsiveness), performed 20% lower than companies whose structures were not aligned with customers.
So, a reorganization isn’t for everyone. It’s a big commitment that can take up to three years before you reap dividends. But in the right markets and for the right businesses, this approach can provide a real competitive advantage.
McKinsey found that companies focused on customer journeys had a 50% wider gap in customer satisfaction than those that focused on touchpoints. Customer-focused structures can give businesses a distinct competitive advantage.
Moving toward cross-functional teams
To restructure your organization, you’ll need buy-in from your senior management team. Having that CCO advocate will help.
Still, as the adage goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. And neither will your new customer-focused structure. For many businesses, changes happen in a stepwise, sometimes organic way over a few years, as was the case for Moross at Moo.
A way to curry favor with the C-suite for your cross-functional dreams is to show what’s possible when teams align. Dell’s Hayes offered a great example with site search reports, which can give you insights into trends, what people think you should sell, naming conventions, customer service pain points, misspellings etc. These insights could impact the product, digital experience, store locations, merchandisers, marketing, and customer service teams.
But if you give that same information to each functional team, the way they plan improvements and prioritise may differ—leading to a confusing, disjointed experience for the customer. A cross-functional team means that insights from customer data are actioned consistently across the experience.
How do you set up a cross-functional, customer-focused team?
Not every team in the company needs to be organized as a cross-functional team. Some may follow “channel and delivery” units (e.g., retail stores). Some disciplines will remain as functionally structured teams or “flow to work” groups, such as corporate support activities like HR.
Then you have the more fluid cross-functional teams, which can be organized around certain customer journeys or customer segments. There are a few key elements needed to create successful cross-functional teams:
Your team needs to have all the skills to work on the end-to-end journey (e.g., engineering, product, marketing, etc). But don’t make your teams too big—after a certain point they become ineffective. Use Jeff Bezos’ “two-pizza rule”: If you need more than two pizzas to feed everyone on your team, your team is too big.
Be accountable to KPIs
Set KPIs and reward teams for achieving them—and let them decide how to achieve them. Nordstrom’s famous employee handbook has one rule: “Use your best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.”
Their employees know that customer satisfaction is the main KPI, and this “handbook” helps reinforce their accountability. The expectation from the business is that they will act as they see fit to achieve their goals.
Here’s an example of how Nilan Peiris, the VP of Growth at Transferwise, is setting up teams to be accountable:
Our performance marketing team (the team responsible for advertising on Facebook and Google) has a product manager and developers working within it [. . .] The performance marketing team can make changes to any part of the product that they believe will improve conversion from performance.
This focus on our customers and our KPIs gives us incredible focus and stops us from prioritizing abstract notions that do not matter, but the things that will make a difference to our customers. We have no roadmap meetings, no strategy sessions, our KPIs and teams give us clarity on where we should focus.
As we’ve got KPI ownership rather than product/code ownership, this works. Teams can work across the entire experience to move their KPIs.
This sounds great in theory, but when a team has 50 things they could do to improve their KPIs, which do they do first? If your cross-functional teams aren’t permanent and go back to their functional departments, they’re likely to prioritize elements that benefit their “home team.”
A practical way to help teams prioritise is by using even-over statements. Pick one good thing that should take priority, even over another good thing (typically in conflict with one another).
For example, customer satisfaction even over revenue, or security even over UX. Get your team to vote on their top three, with each person getting three votes. This helps the team set their priorities.
James Robinson, Head of Conversion Rate Optimisation at Sofology, shares how setting priorities achieves the best outcome:
I've proposed a whole raft of improvements to a customer account area in the past. Backed with good data and research, expecting it to be picked up almost immediately given the case.
Then, I found out that the systems that it sat on were old and unsupported, and there was a risk they could stop functioning at some point. The “customer-centric” priority was to do the work behind the scenes—failure would have been much worse than waiting a few more months for the improvements.
Give authority to make decisions
It’s easy for teams to fall into the trap of consensus. As humans, we generally avoid conflict and are mostly happy to go along with the flow. However, this approach doesn’t always lead you to do the right things.
Therefore, early on, it’s important to set out the who and how for team decisions. Priorities and KPIs help, but who has the ultimate say?
At the very start of team formation, determine who has what decision-making power. When is someone required to get additional people involved? When shouldn’t decisions be made in isolation? When are multiple perspectives needed?
Below illustrates how this might look in reality:
Delegating the decision-making power within the team means they’re more likely to listen to customer rather than internal stakeholders wants, as Peiris explains:
Our teams are autonomous and independent [. . .] no one can tell a team what to do. For example, we have a currencies team. It decides each quarter which currencies it's going to launch. No one tells the team what currencies to launch. Anyone can challenge the team on what it's doing, and the team should have a rationale for explaining why it’s focussing where it is. What this means in practice isn’t anarchy—but empowering teams to listen to customers and not to “someone high up.
Getting everyone to care about customers can feel like a hard slog, but once people across the business start along this path—and the structure and behaviours are established—they’ll be no turning back.
The benefits to the customer and business can set your business apart, and you can finally challenge anyone who wants to do something based on a hunch, rather than what’s actually best for your customers.