Social distancing and remote work, along with new digital services and other factors have dramatically changed how companies interact with their customers in 2020. Consumer businesses have a front-row seat to this shift, recognizing that the demand for better, safer, and more enjoyable customer experiences is at an all-time high. In fact, in a recent survey from PwC, 32 percent of all customers reported that they would stop doing business with a company they love after just one bad experience.
To stay ahead of this new reality, companies must prioritize a foundational “customer-first” culture. This means giving your employees the exposure and the tools they need to bring these values into their day-to-day roles.
How can you, as a business leader, think more like your customers and deliver experiences that build trust and retain customer loyalty? Here are three fundamental steps to consider:
1. Create a customer-centric culture
Corporate culture starts at the top. The CEO and executive leadership team set the tone for the entire organization and are responsible for reinforcing and providing examples of that culture every day, without exception. Therefore, building a customer-centric culture and modeling a customer-centric mindset must be reflected in every aspect of the decisions being made at the leadership level.
[ For more on this topic, read Meg Foley's related article: 3 ways to develop more empathy for customers. ]
Your company’s culture also determines how social and behavioral standards are set within the organization. It is the lifeblood of your business and therefore influences how you hire, communicate, educate, make decisions, and conduct business with your customers, partners, and stakeholders. This starts by ensuring that your new hires are not just a culture fit, but a culture add, and that they are immersed in the culture and values that drive your organization from day one.
One company that is doing this well is Sprouts Farmers Market. Sprouts is leading the way in what it means to be a culture-driven, people-centered organization. They have an executive team that prioritizes culture and leads by example, and this has influenced how the entire company operates. Not only do they make sure employees are immersed in the culture from day one, but they invest in innovative learning and development solutions to ensure employees are both mentally and emotionally prepared to deliver the best customer experience possible.
2. Build empathy
Having the ability to share an emotional connection and gain situational understanding from another person’s perspective is powerful. This is called empathy, and it’s an essential skill for employees to have in a customer-centric culture. In fact, a recent Salesforce survey revealed that consumers believe that empathy is the third most important quality in customer service (following speed and expertise).
Empathy helps your employees diffuse potential escalations by recognizing and responding to challenging situations effectively and with sensitivity. Your customers certainly care about what is said to them, but how it’s said is just as important.
Consider today’s environment: The pandemic, combined with social and political tensions, has affected both our personal and professional lives, creating uncertainty and anxiety. It has also altered the way we as consumers access goods and services.
For example, face masks quickly became a requirement at nearly every place of business. And suddenly, frontline employees were asked to uphold these stringent new safety protocols, leading to an uptick in high-stress customer interactions. While dealing with anxious customers is a normal part of many employees’ responsibilities, any additional emotional and social tension can make these conversations especially challenging. Situations like these can quickly escalate if they are not handled with care and understanding.
Providing empathy training for your employees can prepare them for the emotional work of de-escalating such interactions. For example, they might learn to focus on questions like these: What is the underlying reason for a customer’s emotional response? Are they actually angry, or are they frightened? What else would help them feel heard and understood?
Utilizing empathy enables employees to relate more sincerely, stay calm in the heat of the moment, solve problems creatively, and ultimately offer a better customer experience.
3. Provide situational practice
Getting better at any skill takes practice, and developing customer-centricity is no exception. Helping your employees increase contextual awareness and giving them effective tools will boost their confidence, increase positive engagement with customers, improve on-the-spot problem-solving, and decrease anxiety and stress.
Here are a few important considerations to keep in mind when developing programs to gain situational practice:
Unscripted conversations. Many training programs utilize traditional techniques like role-playing to provide situational practice. While these approaches are probably more effective than watching a video or reading a handbook, they miss one key element: critical thinking.
Role-playing scenarios that use scripted conversations simply give learners a “talk-track” to follow instead of asking them to actively engage with the situation. In addition, these scenarios are often not taken seriously. That’s why it’s important to provide realistic, unscripted situational practice sessions that help your employees identify emotional and nonverbal cues, think critically, and act upon their own judgment and assessment of the situation.
Immediate feedback and self-assessment. Good situational practice should give learners best practices, followed by immediate feedback and opportunities for self-assessment to help them improve. This also provides key moments of reflection so they can problem-solve and develop strategies that work best for them.
Providing realistic environments for employees to “learn by doing” and practice empathizing and interacting with customers can make all the difference in building a customer-centric culture. Unfortunately, COVID and social distancing protocols have made it hard to implement in-person training programs, so many companies are turning to virtual and technological solutions.
Think like a customer
Delivering a high-quality customer experience has always been a top priority for businesses, but it has become even more critical now as consumer demands, safety protocols, and new ways to interact continue to shift. There are many tools and strategies for up-leveling customer experience, but ultimately, confident, prepared employees will make the biggest difference.
Companies that foster a culture of customer-centricity, embrace empathy, and provide highly engaging training opportunities will rise to the top. Take a moment and think like your customers: Are your employees empowered, prepared, and confident enough to make the customer experience the best it can be?
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