• May 1, 2013
  • By Lior Arussy, founder and president, Strativity Group

The Role of Culture in Customer Relationships

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There comes a point when money can no longer buy you success. It cannot buy you brand equity or exceptional customer experiences or even successful utilization of your CRM system. Money cannot buy you everything, no matter how much of it you have.

Consider the airline industry. You board an airplane today in the United States, and with very few exceptions, you are welcomed with a fake smile from an overtired, jaded, and uncaring flight attendant. You sense right then and there that you are anything but welcome, and the last thing on earth this flight attendant wants is to see you, let alone serve you. There is no amount of money in the world that will make this flight attendant smile sincerely toward you and welcome you wholeheartedly (the key words being sincerely and wholeheartedly). That sincere smile cannot come from extrinsic incentives; it comes from intrinsic motivation. She either wants you to be there or she doesn't.

The challenge of creating brand value, exceptional experiences, and lasting customer relationships is dependent today more on the individual choice made by this flight attendant (and others like her) than on any sophisticated CRM analytics tool or training program. Many companies have already fixed broken processes, optimized their call centers, and developed social media response teams. The new front line is your people's attitude. This is where traditional management tools clash with the new reality. You cannot force, from the top down, all your people to smile sincerely. This is their choice, which means we can no longer use command and control tools such as processes, but ought to explore new tools. We ought to develop cultural tools that make people want to smile sincerely and delight customers and make them feel as if there is no other place the person who is serving them wants to be. When managing the emotional aspects of the customer experience, companies are dependent on the employee's choices far more than on a manager's ability to force a new procedure.

In a recent study we conducted for a business-to-business national organization, our assessment of the emotional aspects of the customer experience was dismissed almost outright by the executives. They felt that their clients were only looking for timely, affordable solutions, nothing more. The reality is far from this assumption. The number one driver of customer loyalty was emotional, and out of the top five loyalty drivers, three were emotional. Product quality was number four in importance. What a misalignment! Where was the disconnect originating? The executives say their business is selling widgets to rational businesses. They forgot that businesses are made up of people with feelings and emotions and aspirations. It does not matter if customers purchase Disney tickets or a widget, they still love, feel, hate, get angry, need forgiveness, and hope for a better future. If you connect to this element of them, you will create a memorable experience they will cherish far longer than they remember your lower price.

Culture is often perceived by rational executives as too touchy-feely to consider. In reality, culture is who you are. Culture drives your innovation, differentiation, and customer connection. Create a culture of mistrust and your organization will end up treating customers as cheaters unless proven otherwise. Create a culture of generosity and your customers will feel the love. (Would some customers abuse this? Maybe. If so, do something about those who take advantage, but do not penalize all the honest customers and undermine your differentiation in the process.)

Culture must appear on your corporate agenda. No different than your target for the year, culture is your defining differentiator. It is the answer to the questions "How are we going to make the numbers this year? What path will take us there? How are our people behaving and delighting?"

An organization is the sum total of its people's choices to care or ignore, to be authentic or detached. What choice would your organization make?


Lior Arussy is the founder and president of Strativity Group and has had the privilege of assisting more than 150 organizations in their customer-centric transformations. He is the author of several books on customer experience, employee engagement, and experience innovation. His latest book, Exceptionalize It!, is available on Amazon.


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