I’ll always remember the impact of a story told me by Paul Polman CMgr CCMI, then-chief executive of Unilever, the global consumer products company: he said that the purpose of the company was to improve people’s lives, which I told him I thought fanciful given that he was talking about soaps and detergents.
He told me about a visit to a consumer’s home outside Cairo, in Egypt. He experienced her life and the hardship she had to endure as she cooked and cleaned for her family. She had to trudge for miles to fetch water in order to heat it over a fire in a metal barrel and wash her family’s clothes. She had to do the same again to rinse the clothes. She had to do it all over again that afternoon in order to cook dinner for her husband and family.
If Unilever could make a detergent that didn’t need as much rinsing, or a cube of food flavouring that would more quickly and easily enrich her meals, they could make her life a little easier and give her more time – time she could invest in the children, spend with her husband, or time for herself and her personal aspirations. It might be a seemingly mundane product such as detergent, but it could make a huge difference to people’s lives if you truly understood their needs. Knowing this, employees would be far more motivated to find solutions that would both be useful to consumers and valuable to the company.
Help staff to understand how customers feel
By “customers”, I of course mean the people you serve – whether that is a B2B client, a consumer, a patient, or even a colleague. No matter who the customer is, wise leaders find a way to help everyone understand exactly what they are doing for the customer. More importantly, they ensure that staff know how the customer benefits from what they do, and what that means in their lives.
Effective leaders find ways to connect everybody with their customers and know that not everyone meets the customer. Frontline staff such as waiters, shop assistants, nurses, and receptionists all meet their “customers” every day – even if it is from behind a face mask or computer screen these days. But despite these many meetings, they still may not always get to understand their lives and needs nor how they truly feel.
Lives and livelihoods have been overwhelmed by this crisis, and leaders must now be extraordinarily empathetic if they want to hold on to customers and even strengthen ties for the future.
For example, to a car parts manager in a warehouse, an effective leader will talk about how failure to get a part to a garage in time would impact on a parent waiting to collect their car and go to fetch their children from school. Without that part in the right place at the right time, that parent would be disappointed and put in a difficult situation. As a result, they would likely never return to that service provider. One moment of lack of care could have devastating consequences for both the customer and the company.
The purpose of your company or team has to be personal to individuals within it and enable them to see how they are improving lives outside of the business you run. This is especially true in times like these – when the pandemic has forced so many changes on people, in so many ways. We are much more motivated when we know we are doing good in other people’s lives.
You cannot articulate a purpose that resonates with customers but fails to excite employees, and the way to excite employees is to visibly and persistently put the customer front and centre of everything that you do.
If you can’t bring customers into your meeting (which should be much easier in the age of Zoom) bring front-line staff in to talk about customer attitudes and highlight the problems or successes they see on a daily basis. Alternatively, show videos of customers using your products and services to your team – better still, show what customers’ lives are like when they are unable to access your services. Survey customers regularly and bring that information to the table on a regular basis; continuous feedback is key to continuous improvement. It also provides insights that will help you think about a post-Covid world, and start to anticipate customers’ needs for the future.
Tuning in to customers in real time is crucial in a world that moves at lightning speed. Social media means that any problems with service or product defects will quickly be brought to the attention of a wider world. Online, millions of people are talking to each other in a brutally frank way, so we have access to a huge and hugely honest focus group that we can collect, collate and feed back to employees.
Tell customer stories all the time
This is why inspirational leaders talk about great needs that must be answered. They talk about the challenges that customers face, and they make those stories a rallying cry for improvement and innovation. They also never forget the powerfully positive effect of happy customers, and they’re always looking for great customer case studies to wax lyrical about.
They use these stories either to generate greater empathy and understanding among employees about what customers are facing, or they use it to motivate employees to work harder to find better solutions. Finally, they also use these stories to thank people and make them feel proud about what they have achieved to keep them motivated.
Successful leaders use their customers to help engineer a better future. Inspiring leaders are charismatic because they ‘are’ the customer, and they talk with authentic knowledge about the experience of being a customer.
Are you truly customer-centric? Check by answering the following questions:
- Do you truly put your customers at the centre of your decision-making and represent them at every team meeting?
- If you run a service function in an organisation, do you recognise that your colleagues are your customers and ensure your team treats them that way?
- Do they understand their role in the value chain providing benefits to external customers?
- Do you bring customer feedback, insights or research into every meeting?
- Do you do this regularly to look for continuous insights that drive continuous improvement?
- Do you sometimes bring real customers into meetings so that team members can experience life from their point of view?
- Do you look for ways to convey the needs of your customers to your team, as well as the functional and emotional benefits customers get from your products and services?
- Do you love to find out about customer stories, good and bad, and relish telling them inside your team, all the time?
- Do you ensure that every person in your team understands how they are connected to the customer, and how their actions impact on customer service?
- Do you encourage your team to find and bring back customer stories that will help to problem-solve and innovate?
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