Culture is central to customer experience. But what exactly is it?

You know that culture is the key to great CX. But what do we mean when we talk about culture? Here’s my definition:

Culture is made up of a group’s shared assumptions about the nature of the world and how to succeed in it.

People use these assumptions to decide what’s going on around them and how they should react. Here are some examples:

Low trust culture. We assume humans, in general, aren’t trustworthy. So we must set rules and monitor people to make sure everyone follows them.

Authoritarian culture. We assume that the boss is always right. So we must never correct or challenge people more senior than us, even when we know they’re wrong, because it’s a career limiting move.

Techno-centric culture. The product with the coolest technology will win in the marketplace. So we should build whatever we find exciting even if no one wants or needs it.

Psychologically safe culture. We assume that mistakes are part of life, not a sign of incompetence. So if we mess up or something doesn’t turn out the way we expected, it’s okay to acknowledge and learn from it.

Collective culture. We assume the group’s success matters more than any one individual. So we are willing to do what’s best for the team, even if it’s not what we would prefer personally.

How to change culture

When you change culture, you are replacing old, unhelpful assumptions with new, more accurate ones.

Many of the assumptions that shape culture are unspoken, so the first thing you need to do is figure out what you think people assume today based on their behavior. Then, write out what you want them to assume instead. Here’s an example common in product-centric organizations:

  • What people assume now: The best way to succeed is to come up with a bunch of ideas for new products and services, then market the heck out of them to create demand.
  • What you want them to assume: The best way to succeed is to figure out what people want to accomplish in life and find new ways to help them reach those goals.

Here’s a personal example from my experience with clients:

  • What some clients assume now: People in their company don’t care about customers, at least not as much as they care about profits and financial results.
  • What I want you to assume: Customer experience is the “eat healthy and exercise” of the business world. People know it’s important, and on some level they want to do it, but changes in the environment have made it harder to do what’s good for us.

Most cultures have dozens, even hundreds, of assumptions so don’t get too caught up trying to capture them all. Start with the five that are most directly related to the change you’re trying to drive.

Once you have that list in place, the next step is disconfirmation – getting people to see that their view of the world is incorrect. Telling someone they’re wrong is never as effective as showing them, which is why I recommend a technique called “exposure” that psychologists use help people overcome fears. Here’s how it works: put someone in the same situation over and over and let them see for themselves that what they thought would happen isn’t what actually happens. Customers don’t understand jargon filled letters that marketing wrote. Employees with flex-time work more than those forced to work in the office on a set schedule. Bending the rules for a customer doesn’t get you in trouble with the boss anymore. It takes a while to re-write the database of if/then rules inside people’s heads, but if you keep the exposure up long enough it will happen.

Culture is a multi-layered topic, so if you want more details or to talk through your unique situation, give me a call. I’ll also be writing more posts on culture and transformation strategies that work with human nature instead of against it. If there are specific aspects of culture you’d like me to write about, let me know in the comments below.