Why culture is the Achilles Heel of your customer experience efforts (Part I)

The future of most customer efforts has already been written: take a look at your culture

I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game – it is the game.”  Lou Gerstner

Many large companies are playing the Customer game and most of them will fail.  They may succeed in improving marketing campaign ROI and reducing churn through customer analytics.  They may succeed in reducing customer service costs by implementing making it harder for customer to contact the call centres and by replacing people with self-service systems.  Yes, they may win a ‘battle’ here and their.  Nonetheless, at the strategic level (‘war’) they will fail: they will fail to build customer loyalty and reap the rewards of that loyalty.  Why?

Culture.  If you scratch the surface you find the culture within many large established companies is one of “do whatever it takes to make the numbers!”  Why is that?  Because the Tops are judged by only one thing: making the numbers.  In general, Tops do not care about people – not the flesh and blood ’employees’, nor the flesh and blood suppliers/partner, nor the flesh and blood ‘customers’.  Nor do they care about or have an intimate understanding of operations.  How can they?

They are embedded in a structure (‘system’) which views customers as objects to be manipulated and wallets to be emptied; employees are simply resources which inconveniently come in a human form and are costly hence the focus on replacing them with technology; suppliers are also resources and the objective is to pay the lowest price; laws are simply inconvenient hurdles that one can find ways around; and the rightful role of the Tops is generalship (‘strategy’).  In the world of the Tops (business or politics) the only thing that matters is making the ‘numbers’: the end justifies the means.

This grim picture is mostly hidden from view.  It is the elephant in the room that no-one wants to acknowledge as it is too threatening – it conflicts with our espoused words and values.  Yet, occasionally this elephant burst on to the world stage in a dramatic fashion:  in the USA there was Worldcom, Enron, Andersen and recently the financial crisis; and in the UK we had the MPs expenses scandal, the financial crisis and recently the News of the World phone hacking scandal.

When you exit the ‘matrix of customer babble’ you will tend to find that the real agenda and system structure can best be described as “extracting maximum value at the expense of the customer” – to borrow Fred Reicheld’s words.  Large companies and the people within them resort to any manner of tactics to pry open the customer’s wallet and get as much out of it as possible right now in this transaction, in this quarter, in this year – to make the numbers.   You can see it in the marketing dept where marketers are busy devising all kinds of ‘bait and switch’ tactics.  You can also see it in the love of ‘neuromarketing’ using insight into the human mind to manipulate customers to do what we want them to do.  You can see it in the relentless dumbing down and depersonalising of customer service…….

What is usually missing is any genuine interest in the flesh and blood customers (or employees, suppliers and partners).  And this is obvious to many of us customers and that is why we use TripAdvisor or Epinions or turn to our social networks to get at the ‘truth’ rather than the marketing claptrap.

What is often missing is any sense of fair play: honesty and integrity between words and actions.   Who is best placed to know the reality of organisational life?  The employees.  In one large publicly quoted company the Tops forced all the Middles and Bottoms to sign an ethics policy.  The following week I learned that these honorable Tops had devised a way to get around the law by using a Greek smuggler to do the dirty work and thus distance themselves from any risk.  Does that sound remarkably similar to the News of the World where policeman and private detectives were used to the dirty work.

Is my experience unique?  Not according to employee surveys, one survey that springs to mind highlighted the following:

  • 49% of employees (who responded to the survey) do not have “trust and confidence” in their company’s senior management;
  • Only 36% of employees believe that their leaders “act with honesty and integrity”;
  • 76% of employees stated that, during a recent one year period, they have personally illegal or unethical behaviours at their companies.

How can you build any kind of meaningful relationship with customers with a culture like that?  I will examine that question in part II of this post – coming soon.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.