Rowing is one of my passions and I often find myself drawing parallels to the sport in my career. Rowers and modern businesses have more in common than one might assume.
Take “the catch,” the most important parts of the rowing stroke cycle. It’s that short moment in time when a rower’s handle changes direction as her oar catches the water. The catch isn’t easy to master but becomes natural the more you practice. The secret is to draw strength from your core.
Like rowers, modern businesses need to embrace change without stopping or losing control. Technology has altered the way we interact with the world. Everything is faster, more personalized, and more convenient, and only getting more so each day. Companies that don’t evolve with the digital landscape will essentially be left in the wake. The challenge is to create an environment where change can happen, and is expected and effectively managed.
Also like rowers, the companies that master change are the ones that focus on their core—their customers. Customers are the foundation of any business, and to get change right, they need to be at the center of everything you build.
But while the importance of embracing change in the ever-evolving digital economy isn’t under question, how to do it well often is—especially change that leads to, or supports, greater customer-centricity. Here are a few strategies that can help.
Everything is faster, more personalized, and more convenient, and only getting more so each day. Companies that don't evolve with the digital landscape will essentially be left in the wake.
Reframe the conversation
Forward-thinking companies are basing their business models around the customer experience. This means they're taking a fundamentally different approach to problem-solving by changing the taxonomy from questions like, "What are your requirements?" and instead asking: "What experience should our customers have?”
Even a simple change in language, can make a difference in re-centering your company’s mindset around the customer, the very person your business wants to attract and serve. By asking questions like this in everything you do, it helps your business to be more prepared to react and adapt to changing customer needs. Take the healthcare industry, for example. When viewed through the lens of the patient experience, there's clearly a lot of room for improvement in terms of wait times and convenience—issues that providers like One Medical are successfully tackling through same-day or virtual appointments and seamless prescription refills. Or, I recently had a vision exam from 1-800-contacts, a ten-minute experience from the comfort of my home. Experiences like these set a new bar for my expectations, and they're about more than the incredible technology that helps to power them.
Experiences built around the customer drive differentiation. Early disruptors, now household names like Amazon, are partly successful because of their ability to adapt and change—both toward things that customers want, but also away from products or services that it turns out that customers don't need. Today it's easy to forget that Amazon began as a marketplace for rare books, or that something as simple as a 1-click checkout could radically change the marketplace. But a more nascent brand, like Warby Parker, has proven its staying power by listening to customers. As co-founder Neil Blumenthal explained to Inc., the company was eager to share its brand story and the vision for its "buy a pair, give a pair" business model, but later learned that after style and fit, the customer experience was the next most important value differentiator. Warby Parker didn't change its mission, and customers love that the company gives back, but by doubling down on what customers told the brand they cared most about, Warby Parker grew the business—and its ability to fulfill its driving mission.
Experiences built around the customer drive differentiation. Early disruptors, now household names like Amazon, are partly successful because of their ability to adapt and change—both toward things that customers want, but also away from products or services that it turns out that customers don't need.
Connect the organization
One trick to delivering an amazing customer experience is it requires the entire company to make it happen. When you consider all the touchpoints a customer might have with a company, both digital and physical, it’s not surprising that they interact with different parts of the organization. However, when companies implement change, it’s often narrowly focused on the customer experience within a single part of the organization, whether that’s marketing, sales, or customer support. As a result, true customer engagement is episodic at best.
One way to show that customer experience matters across the business is to connect the organization through customer-centric values. Zappos, purchased by Amazon, is an early leader. The brand owes much of its success to its customer-service culture, rooted in a unique set of company values and reinforced throughout the company.
For example, Zappos’ first core value is “deliver WOW through service.” One way it wows customers across touchpoints is with effortlessly simple experiences, extending from the user experience of its website to its innovative warehousing and delivery enhancements. Part of this value involves removing obstacles for customers, which often requires changing business processes, like requiring customers to pay for a return.
One way to show that customer experience matters across the business is to connect the organization through customer-centric values.
“Purse growth and learning” is another Zappos value, which focuses on finding new ways to stretch the Zappos experience. For customer support, this can include sending a customer flowers if they shared that they were returning shoes for a loved one who just passed. By contrast, for a product team, this might mean expanding offerings to meet customers’ needs. When a significant number of customers asked for wardrobe options to go with their shoes, Zappos made clothing options available, too.
Most importantly, Zappos’ values are meant to evolve with the organization and, to reinforce that, they added the value: “embrace and drive change.” “If you had existing corporate values, doesn't mean you can’t go back and review them. Are those values credible today, are they relevant today? Are they unique or do they sound like everyone else’s values if you search them on the internet? And, are they durable?” says Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D., author of the book The Zappos Experience.
Adopt a 5G state of mind
We are entering a 5G future where we can do things that weren’t even possible before. Making things easier and faster is great, but becoming a change leader to customer-centricity also involves not only innovating on existing customer experiences, and to envision entirely new experiences. There’s 5G, but also the 5G state of mind, which many disruptive companies already possess.
[Related read: Unlocking the potential for new customer experiences with 5G]
Take Uber—it used iOS and Android geolocation to create an entirely new ride service experience, enabling users to get peer-to-peer rides on demand. Netflix is another example. Its online streaming services redefined the way customers experience movies and television. And, millennials rarely carry cash now that PayPal and Venmo have enabled them to have a digital wallet, resulting in a new financial experience where “to PayPal” and “to Venmo” have become their own verbs.
Making things easier and faster is great, but becoming a change leader to customer-centricity also involves not only innovating on existing customer experiences, and to envision entirely new experiences.
What all these companies have in common is that they’re combining innovation with technology to build fresh customer experiences the world hasn’t seen before. They are defining industries rather than building on the status quo. This allows them to be nimble and use technology as a tool that helps them meet business objectives, as opposed to a system that drives how they run their business.
Combine data with empathy
Most change leaders are already aware that driving measurable and sustainable growth is next to impossible without data. But they are often missing the other piece of the puzzle: empathy. Combining data with empathy involves adding context to data, applying data compassionately, and using data to enhance customer intimacy—developing insights into who is using your product and what they are looking for.
[Related read: The Empathy Economy: Care, so your customers will too]
One brand that takes an empathetic approach to data is Vimeo. The video-sharing site combines its support data with product updates to give customers a voice in product development. To ensure it applies its customer service data compassionately, Vimeo doesn’t just let the numbers blindly drive product decisions. Instead, its support and product teams work together to ensure that change is contextual and relevant to those it impacts. “Before any product launch, members of our team will be looped in to look at early designs, anticipate pain points, and mention feature requests that they’ve heard that could be included in a redesign or in a new feature,” explained Vimeo’s Sr. Director of Community and Support, Suri Ratnatunga.
To ensure it applies its customer service data compassionately, Vimeo doesn’t just let the numbers blindly drive product decisions. Instead, its support and product teams work together to ensure that change is contextual and relevant to those it impacts.
Another way some businesses are creating more intimate relationships with their customers through data is by using their metrics to drive personalized change. They’re segmenting their data, sharing those segments with other tools, including those for email, ads, and messaging, to optimize campaigns, run A/B tests, and provide recommendations to customers. For instance, Netflix, who runs 250 A/B tests per year, uses data personalization to continuously improve its user experience. From recommending shows to users based on their entertainment preferences to adjusting show covers to actors and actresses they’re familiar with, the brand is constantly looking towards its data to make a better personalized experience. “Personalization is one of the pillars of Netflix because it allows each member to have a different view of our content that adapts to their interests and can help expand their interests over time. It enables us to not have just one Netflix product but hundreds of millions of products: one for each member profile,” says Netflix.
[Related read: Personalization's deep data foundations]
It’s funny; we think of humans as generally not good at change, but we accept change quite readily when we like the benefit of what we get. That’s why companies that truly become change leaders to customer-centricity get the whole organization on board, rather than just those at the executive level. This fosters change that makes both their customers happy and the people who enable these changes to happen—their team. Just like in rowing, the coxswain may steer and motivate the crew, but the team needs to work together to change the boat’s direction.
Colleen Berube is Chief Information Officer at Zendesk, where she oversees all business systems and technology globally. She is shaping Zendesk's benchmark for modern IT at scale and customer-centric workforce. You can find her on Twitter @ColleenBerube and LinkedIn.