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CX Change Begins With Culture Change

wow “CX change is culture change.” I first heard Annette Franz say this several years ago. It stuck with me then, but I didn’t fully understand it. The longer I do this work, the more the truth of Annette’s words resonated.

My favorite definition of culture is simply “how we do things.” In a customer-centric organization, how you do things is going to generate value for the customer. It’s not a program; it’s not a priority focus for Q4; it’s not an empty executive mantra. It’s just the way people think, and, ultimately, the way people behave towards customers and each other.

You could have the best CX strategy in the world, but it will still fail in the absence of a customer-centric culture. This is good and bad news. It’s good because it helps to explain why so many customer experience initiatives fail to deliver up to expectations. It’s not so good because culture change might be the absolute hardest change to make stick inside of an organization. The failure/success rate of CX initiatives and culture change initiatives are eerily similar. This is not a coincidence; one cannot happen without the other.

From what I see, many experienced leaders are trying to solve the CX puzzle without using the culture piece. We are so quick to buy a new piece of technology, hire a new role, or introduce a new process. This is like putting a fresh coat of paint over a dry-rotting board. It may look new, but as soon as you put weight on it, the wood will collapse. Making CX changes without addressing culture is the same: Ultimately, how your employees feel about your brand today is how your customers will feel about your brand tomorrow.

While it may be difficult to undergo a culture transformation, it is still possible and necessary. There are common threads found inside of world-class CX organizations that can help to pave the way for us. Let’s explore a few of them:

Know Where You (Actually) Stand

As with any transformation, we need to have a clear depiction of the current state. People seem to think this does not apply to a cultural transformation, but I assure you it does.

It’s very easy to hide the truth of a poor culture behind an annual or biannual employee engagement survey. It’s essentially impossible here to correlate any employee feedback to actual events or decisions made by the company. Organizations that are serious about improvement in this area will have the fortitude to rel="noopener noreferrer" supplement with regular pulse surveys as part of a larger employee listening program.

Fair warning, however: you will be amazed by the quality and quantity of data you will receive when first implementing this approach. It can be a dramatic shift when people finally trust the listening mechanism and leaders demonstrate they truly care about employee feedback. That transparency was too much for one VP of HR I worked with years ago; he actually shut down the program instead of trying to figure out how to fix the issues.

In the words of Adam Grant, “The harder you make it to voice problems, the harder it becomes to solve them. The issues people are most afraid to raise are the most likely to become thorns in your side. It’s impossible to fix what you don't know is broken.”

It requires courage to know the truth. But until you do, the culture (or CX) transformation is going nowhere.

Set Up For Success

In many cases, the CX leader may have the knowledge and desire to lead a cultural transformation, but does not have the scope of control. It takes a seriously smart organization to see the true overlap between employee experience, culture, and customer experience. If these three areas are not unified, they are all destined to fail.

In an ideal world, there will be something like a Chief Experience Officer that owns all three. This not only provides a seat at the executive table, but also maintains the required alignment to accelerate the transformation.

This is not the only way to achieve cultural change, however. A strong “CX Change Coalition” with the right stakeholders participating can also meet the need. In many cases, an HR leader will have ownership over culture and/or employee engagement.

This person must be an active participant. It may seem obvious, but I’m amazed how often I see HR excluded from change coalitions like this.

It Must Begin With Leadership

“There are no grassroots cultural movements.” - I heard Mark Shaefer say this just the other night during a talk at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center.

Mark went on to say how Executive Leaders who control budgets, set priorities, and make personnel decisions will be the ones to establish culture. Sadly many of these are the same leaders who may talk about the importance of culture, but their behaviors say something very different.

Let me give you a very personal example: I remember telling my teenage daughter as kindly as possible that she needed professional therapy. We knew that if she could just have a bit of help to develop the mental tools needed to navigate the challenges around her, she'd be a happier, healthier person. I also knew it would also go a long way towards improving our family culture.

The fact is it didn't matter how I worded the statement. By me singling her out and saying she needed therapy, when I myself was not going, communicates that there is a problem unique to her. As you can imagine, she was resistant.

It was time to line my actions up with my words. I realized that if I really do value therapy and see value there, it's something our whole family needed.

And so we go together. As a family. All four of us at the same time. It has been tremendously helpful. We are, in fact, happier healthier people, and our family culture has transformed for the better.

This is critical as we consider how to change the culture in our workplace. We can talk about the attributes of an ideal culture until we are blue in the face, but until leaders have the courage to model out specific behaviors, change will not happen.

In the words of legendary customer service culture expert Jeff Toister, “Leaders in customer-focused companies realize that employees look to them to set a positive example. They model the culture in their daily activities, so people understand that any executive pronouncements about culture are more than just lip service.”

About These Behaviors…

It’s time to give meaning to the concept of culture change. We are really talking about two things: changing our mentality and, subsequently, our behaviors.

Mentality - The way we think about the brand, our customers, and each other.

In a customer-centric organization, employees take great pride in their ability to serve customers and serve one another. The mission of the organization is being fulfilled in a way that is intrinsically motivating. This is what brings you top talent, engages your current talent, and pushes the transformation effort forward from the inside out.

Behaviors - The things we do, the ways we speak, and the decisions we make each and every day.

Naturally, the behaviors are going to flow out from the mentality. Until we change the way people think about customers, we cannot change the ways they are going to act towards them. People try to shortcut this or fake this in a thousand different ways, but none of them work for long.

Executive leadership must come together and actually put to words the unique mentalities and behaviors the business is trying to cultivate. Without this, what will they model? How would any leader hire someone into the business as a cultural fit? How would an employee know if they really don’t belong inside of the new culture?

I suspect that the main reason why the vast majority of cultural transformations fail is that organizations simply don't have the patience. It requires time, intentionality, and, above all, consistency. This is how we stir the hearts and minds of our people and urge them towards a new way of working over time.