When I was young, my father taught me that you need to learn from mistakes, whether they’re your own or someone else’s. As a young man, I paid very little attention to his words. Teenagers tend to ignore their parents’ advice, especially if your father is the headmaster of a school. But the older I got, the more I realised how right he was. Failure is often the best way to learn. If someone shares their problems and failures with us—and more importantly how they dealt with them— we can learn from their own life experiences. The ideal scenario is that you never make the same mistake twice.
Turning a company into a customer-focused organisation involves both human and cultural change. Customer experience is much more than a simple matter of IT. It begins with the company’s mission statement and a shared aspiration to delight customers. The first article of this series explored this paradigm shift from the structural point of view as seen by the company. This article will take a closer look at the human and cultural aspects.
1. Human Beings Can Be Both Obstacles, And Key, To A Lasting Change
In the transformation, two factors play a crucial role—entrenched belief systems, on the one hand, and overeager champions of change on the other. Personal attitudes that lie behind the statement “but we’ve always done it like that” may be evidence of routine thinking, but they can hinder any useful change. On the other hand, passionate and enthusiastic proponents of an idea can also represent a challenge.
Shantanu Narayen, chief executive of Adobe, the parent company of CMO.com, recently explained that he hadn’t realised how hard it could be to get all the enthusiastic proponents of a new idea singing from the same hymn sheet. So the transformation of Adobe is all the more remarkable. Individual solutions such as Photoshop and PDF reader are no longer its main focus. Instead, the entire company is working towards the goal of enabling the users of its products to create experiences for others. This shift in focus has been underpinned by a complex transformation that could only be achieved through the creation of strategic alliances and clear commitment on all levels of the company.
2. Room For Manoeuvre Enables Sustainable Change
In some companies, change is dictated from the top down—staff hear about new developments from internal corporate communications. But more courageous companies give their employees certain room for manoeuvre. Pharmaceuticals manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur was brave enough to do so. In the space of just a few months, its senior director of stakeholder engagement, Céline Schillinger, managed to create Sanofi’s largest internal social media group so far, covering 50 countries.
While the appeal for the group was the concept of diversity, the actual theme went much deeper. The point was to show that a really innovative company has to listen to its employees and customers. The crucial question that Schillinger put to staff was: “What do we as a company want to stand for?”
The question related to employees’ personal needs, and management had to accept that there would be criticism of the company. An important part of this process was to use the criticism in a meaningful way and turn it into a series of constructive suggestions. Employees had their say. They felt involved in defining a common goal and shaping the company’s future direction. “The group became a positive force providing concrete suggestions, which, for the Sanofi management, was incredibly valuable,” Schillinger said.
In this context, Michael Brenner of the Marketing Insider Group talked about “champion leaders” who can recognise the true potential of their employees. He said companies should actively seek to open channels of communication and create room for individual freedom. But this path can only be taken if the room for manoeuvre is, or is set to become, an integral part of company culture. It’s here that new ways of working can be introduced. But, in Germany, according to a study by management consultancy Kienbaum, for 70% of companies, new ways of working simply mean working from home. By comparison, positive factors such as “cultural change” (25%) and “visible management” (17%) scarcely figure in the results.
For Schillinger and her employer, her boldness and perseverance have paid off. Business daily La Tribune named Schillinger France’s Businesswoman of the Year, and Sanofi won the Global Shorty award for the social media campaign she organised.
3. Key Attributes: Empathy And Lifelong Learning
The more AI takes over tasks previously done by humans, the more important key attributes will become. A key question will be: Which activities are so unique that they can’t be replaced by AI in the future?
In the Age of the Customer, personalisation and individualisation are crucial differentiators. Progress will only be possible through listening, understanding, and being prepared to engage in the dialogue with one another. Media expert Bernhard Pörsken has described “true listening” as a “gift from one person to another” that has become “precious and rare.” For Pörsken, it’s so precious that it can be the defining element of the customer experience in the relationship with the company—when the person we are dealing with feels understood, seen, and heard. Empathy is, therefore, a key attribute of maintaining a relationship with the customer, as well as with colleagues and junior staff.
Alongside empathy, other key attributes are willingness and ability to commit to lifelong learning. In this context, Matthias Schrader, chief executive of SinnerSchrader, talked of second-tier specialists. These people have the meta-skill of being able to repeatedly and quickly pick up and apply new skills.
Learning from one another helps us develop an awareness of how tasks that used to be kept separate can be brought into synchronisation. If resources are set aside for this purpose as the company grows, the learning process becomes a crucial factor in the company’s success.
The focus needs to be put back on people, and decision makers who promote this transformation and this type of culture are indispensable. Managers should set aside the old ways of working, which until now have provided an element of security, and learn to trust new paradigms. Really listening, tackling issues together, doing, designing, and feeling—they all put companies in a position where they can make the customer the focus of their attention. Every single day.