How to cultivate a customer-focused culture

Contributor - Andrew McMillan

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Every firm has its own culture, good or bad. However, the best businesses carefully cultivate their own positive culture, as Andrew McMillan of Charteris explains

Customer focus is an essential part of any successful business. And that focus has to be integral to the culture of the business, not bolted on. Defining that culture is a key step in bringing it to life.

New enterprises that create a customer-focused culture from scratch are invariably successful and there are some great examples of businesses that have done that. First Direct bank is one and Virgin Atlantic is another. Both are known for delivering a distinct and defined customer experience and they use that point of differentiation to market and drive the growth of their businesses.

That's great if the business has been overtly aware of customer service from day one and has taken conscious action to safeguard and nurture the culture of the business as it has grown.

Sadly, in my experience, businesses such as these are very much in the minority and "we need to change our culture" is a common plea from organisations that I work with. "Change your culture from what to what?" is often my first question, and it rarely brings a clear answer. Closer questioning usually returns responses such as "our people don't work together as a team" or "nobody seems to really care about the success of the business", or sometimes, more honestly, "our service is poor because we don't really care about customers". Unfortunately, by the time a business is experiencing these symptoms and noticing them, the damage has been done.

How does a positive business culture grow?

Often, as the business has grown, the focus has been on developing the product or service and the processes that support it and not the people. New recruits have been engaged to fulfil a function with little regard for the alignment of their attitude and personality with the original business aims. Sometimes it can be that the expectations of customers have moved on and the business hasn't adapted accordingly.

The most common reaction is to put everyone in the business through a training course on customer service. It seems like a good idea on the face of it, but I rarely see lasting benefit. The problem is the employees won't have seen any significant change in the way the business operates, so a few weeks later it's "business as usual". I'm not suggesting that training doesn't have a place, you just have to be clear on what it can and can't achieve.

Training is essential for teaching how a shop's till system operates, product knowledge or how a call centre agent must include legally required statements if they operate in the finance sector. It can also set baseline standards for how customers are dealt with or how telephones are answered, but these are processes that contribute to the customer experience, they don't define or differentiate it.

Get back to your original business objectives

Sometimes you have to rewind the clock and try to recall the basic aims and attitudes the business started with - what did you aim to do and how did you aim to do it? This will identify and help articulate the customer experience the owner had in their mind when they started the business.

Unfortunately for many businesses this isn't possible as those original aspirations may have been lost with the passing of time. In these cases it's down to the current management to redefine the experience they want to deliver for their customers and how that will differentiate them from the competition.

If a business is really brave they can ask their employees what they want their customers to experience. I have seen some really powerful definitions created by the employees of businesses whose managers have previously told me they have an issue with the culture in their business. Either way, it's essential that the employees are consulted in this process to validate the output if they are to engage with and support what follows.

Simple statements that define the business

However it is achieved, the outcome should be a simple statement defining what the business aims to be in terms of customer experience and the behaviour that will define it.

One of my favourites is from RitzCarlton hotels which has a world renowned reputation for great customer experiences: "Welcomed, Wanted, Remembered, Cared For". Essentially, this statement is memorable and is applied both to how they treat their customers and how they treat their employees.

Another example, and it's one that gives me a great sense of personal satisfaction, was created by the employees of a local government team I have recently worked with: "People, Passion, Pride". The power of these statements is their simplicity, which makes them memorable, and their relevancy to the business' product or service.

You need to be careful how these statements are positioned with the employees if they are to be effective. To call them "vision statements" isn't very relevant to a front line employee and many are meaningless. What do they mean in terms of behaviour to an employee on a till or in a call centre? Aspirations that are delivered as "vision" or "mission" statements and use meaningless management speak can only damage a businesses' culture further by providing a breeding ground for cynicism.

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Andrew McMillan

Andrew spent most of his career at John Lewis, starting as a management trainee, and subsequently held a number of operational trading roles across several branches, culminating in running the furniture floor at Oxford Street.

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