Improving CX Starts With The Unconscious

This post originally appeared on CMO.com

If your company wants to be a leader in customer experience (CX), few things will impact your ability to get there more than culture. It’s critical, and it’s also one of the hardest things to change.

According to McKinsey, more than 60% of efforts fail. Why? Because the typical approach to culture change is too superficial. Culture is an unconscious phenomenon. The only way to change it is to influence what’s happening deep inside the minds of the people you work with.  

Let me explain.

Culture Influences Everything We Think And Do

Culture is a set of assumptions shared by members of a group about how the world works and what it takes to succeed. These assumptions shape how we interpret and respond to everything, including these aspects of CX management:

  • Empowerment: You can give employees more freedom to resolve customer issues. But if your culture lacks trust, no one will believe that giving a credit or bending a rule is really OK, so they won’t do it.
  • Collaboration: Competitive cultures assume there’s only one winner. Form a CX steering committee in that environment, and members will just argue over who is right instead of looking for ways to compromise.
  • Empathy: Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, said it best: “You can’t expect people to care for others if they don’t feel cared for.”

Detective Work

Understanding your current culture is a must for change, but easier said than done. People don’t want to admit they’re untrusting, cutthroat, or insensitive.

Even if they do tell the “truth,” it may not be accurate. Humans often think they believe one thing when they really believe something else. For example, most people think that gender doesn’t affect their hiring decisions, but studies show they’re wrong. Both men and women are more likely to pick male candidates over equally qualified females. For whatever reason, we still unconsciously assume that men will do a better job.

The best way to expose taboo beliefs is to work backward from the way people behave. I did this exercise with a client recently. He was frustrated that employees were coming to him to approve any and every little exception to company policy. He trusted them to handle these situations. Why weren’t they doing it?

We traced the problem back to an incident some years earlier. Before, employees had no problem bending rules to preserve customer relationships. Then a regulatory issue elsewhere in the business led to a compliance crackdown. After that, employees assumed that if something wasn’t expressly permitted in the rule book, it was forbidden and they needed to get management approval. That was true in some instances, but not nearly as many as his employees thought. A desire to stay out of trouble, which was understandable, was hurting customer relationships unnecessarily.

Gradual Transformation

It would be great if we could just tell people to think differently and they’d do it. That’s not what happens.

When we see data that conflicts with our existing world view, the first thing we think is that the data is wrong. One data point or one speech is rarely enough to change culture. You have to expose people to a continuous stream of evidence that supports the new way of thinking instead of the old.

I watched this play out in real life a few years ago. Many CEOs tell employees that CX is now their top priority, but few back it up like Victor Dodig, CEO of CIBC. The bank had been working on culture for a while, but progress was slow. When Dodig took over in 2014, that changed. He visited nearly every CIBC branch, taking selfies with customers and employees. He posted the pictures and stories he heard on an internal blog that employees actually read. Even more than new metrics and formal reward programs, these posts gave employees confidence that putting CX first was likely to earn them praise instead of punishment.

But the most passionate leaders have to be careful. You are part of the very culture you’re trying to change. Be on the lookout for unconscious habits—speech and behavior—that seem aligned with old ideas.

For example, if your goal is to be less hierarchical, stop sitting at the head of the table. It’s a nonverbal expression of dominance that makes people wonder if it’s really OK to speak truth to power. In meetings, notice the order in which you tend to talk about things. Shifting the discussion of CX data ahead of financial data is a good reminder that without happy customers, there won’t be any money to count.

These are just examples. Every company—in fact, every person in every company—will have a unique set of habits they need to adjust. But just becoming aware of your thoughts and actions—and their effect on others—is a step in the right direction.