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Implementing Customer Experience as an Organizational Value

by Pete Kinser
10 min read
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How to put CX strategy to work using Kotter’s model, a go-to framework for serious organizational change.

Bringing customer-centered thinking into an organization is about more than just proclaiming that you’re focused on customer experience. It’s about changing your process, sure, but it goes even deeper: It’s about changing attitudes. It’s about making your customers a central organizational value that guides behaviors and decision making.

Valuing customer experience is no longer a secret to success. A focus on CX is quickly becoming the way to do business. A common problem I hear from CX (and UX) practitioners is that they’re being asked to “do CX” within an organization that isn’t changing their processes or thinking. Many companies are maintaining the same processes and strategic approaches while trying to “staple on” this CX thing.

More Than Talking a Good Game

Organizations that espouse one thing while behaving differently can create a variety of internal problems. These organizations have an authenticity problem. They’re less credible both to their employees and to their customers. There can be confusion around roles and responsibilities, which results in disengaged teams, creating an environment where employee trust, focus, and morale suffer—all stemming from a lack of commitment to an espoused value.

It seems obvious that organizations are more effective when there is alignment between what they say they do and what they’re actually doing. The real question is how to create that alignment. What steps can an organization take to walk-the-CX-walk instead of just talking the talk?

Aligning What You Do with What You Say

I’m often asked what it takes to get an organization to value customer experience. Becoming a customer-centered company may sound like an easy shift, but putting this theory into practice is no easy task. Unhinging ourselves from old, ingrained attitudes is difficult. Changing our processes is difficult. Putting CX at the core of an organization’s operations transcends simply changing a few processes or conducting more customer surveys. It requires a new, customer-focused mindset. It requires organizational change.

I can see people waving their arms and saying “Not true. You can still have a positive impact on a customer’s experience without a seismic organizational shift.” That’s true; you can—to a degree. And we’re not always talking about seismic shifts in how organizations work. At some stage, however, you’re going to hit a ceiling or a silo or a business unit that doesn’t hold the same values and you’re going to be stuck.

CX and Organizational Change

Organizational change is about understanding existing issues and modifying business structures and processes. If you’ve worked in a software company in the last 10 years you’re familiar with this. For a variety of reasons, you’ve probably seen it implemented incorrectly. A common reason I see organizational “change” efforts fail is that there are too many change efforts being initiated at once: “Let’s move to an agile dev process, bring in a UX team, and begin working towards continuous integration!”

Those might all be great things to change, but it’s very difficult to find success in multiple areas simultaneously. Change is disruptive and that can be a good thing but it’s critical that the effort is thoughtful in its approach and is properly managed.

Change Ain’t Easy

It’s nice that CX teams exist and that more organizations are beginning to understand their value. The problem is that many CX teams I see (and have worked on) are just another business unit within a larger—and sadly—dysfunctional system. Bolting another business unit onto a collection of units that already have issues working together and adding overlapping responsibilities and unclear areas of accountability is likely to create more problems than solutions.

CX professionals need to work successfully across many business units within an organization

CX professionals need to work successfully across many business units within an organization. All too often these teams enter into broken systems and find themselves becoming the arbiters between other teams: helping product to understand engineering; helping engineering buy into business and stakeholder needs; helping translate and share a quasi organizational vision from group to group; all of this stuff begins to take up more and more of the CX team’s time, creating a dysfunctional environment.

The mindset of the organization needs to shift to a new way of thinking and behaving. So how do we get broader buy-in, collaboration, and coordination for a holistic approach to customer experience?

Using Kotter’s Model for Organizational Change

John Kotter is an MIT graduate and author who teaches at the Harvard Business School. Kotter’s model—an 8-step process—is a go-to framework for organizations who are serious about lasting organizational change. Depending on the size of your company, each step may need more or less effort, and each organization will likely need to tweak the approach to meet their needs needs.

A Few Things to Consider Before Diving In

In reality, you’re not always going to have access to the entire organization right away. This shouldn’t prevent you from taking a big-picture view.

  • Think holistically about the organization, looking past your own perspective.
  • Consider all the elements of the change model even if there’s not a commitment to executing each one.
  • At every stage, keep quick wins at the forefront of your thinking.
  • Know that while the model is presented as linear, there are instances where it may be more iterative—consider cycling back through steps to ensure quality, consistency, and trust before moving ahead.
Step 1: Establishing a Sense of Urgency

Help others feel a gut-level determination to move and win, now. Kotter talks about three types of urgency: Complacent, False, and True.

  • Complacent urgency occurs when things are going “just fine.” You’re killing it in your market and while you know that you should always be improving your approach to CX, you’re not actively doing anything about it.
  • False urgency is when it appears everyone is working really hard on improving the customer experience, but there not. You’ve experienced this before, fast-paced environments with tons of meetings talking about customer needs and yet very little actionable change is happening. In reality, this is busy-work which often leads to a burned out workforce.
  • True urgency is where you want your organization to be. This is where people are working towards the shared vision of customer experience on a daily basis, regardless of their role in the organization—from customer care to engineering, each person works towards and believes they play a critical role in the overall customer experience.
Step 2: Creating the Guiding Coalition

Putting together a group with enough power to lead the change is key. We’ve seen the rise of CX leadership roles. It’s common to see Director, VP, and even Chief Experience Officer roles in both smaller and larger companies. Even with the rise of these types of roles it still takes a larger, cross-discipline effort to achieve lasting change.

In creating a guiding coalition, Kotter recommends three key aspects:

  • Position Power: Simply put, you need influencers to help get things going and to ensure the effort is successful from beginning to end. You need the right people to clear the way for the effort all the way to the goal line.
  • Expertise: Kotter’s way of saying that we need all points of view represented. It can’t just be the C-suite, or only engineers, or three representative business units when the company has a dozen or more different teams/disciplines.
  • Credibility: This is a tough one—title alone doesn’t ensure credibility. Who is respected across the organization? Who inspires others and generates trust? Whoever that is, get them involved.
Step 3: Developing a Change Vision

Clarify how the future will be different from the past. This is a critical step: creating a clear, motivating, and coordinated vision to serve as the guiding principle for change. The vision can’t be a bunch of fluff or doublespeak. Kotter proclaims it needs six key characteristics to be successful:

  • Imaginable: Create a straightforward and clear picture of the future.
  • Desirable: Appeal to the long-term interest of those who have a stake in the enterprise.
  • Feasible: Ensure the vision is realistic. Saying you’re going to have revenues to rival Amazon or Apple within the next 12 months may not be achievable for your startup.
  • Focused: Every vision is going to require decisions to be made along the way. A focused vision allows for easier and, maybe most importantly, distributed decision-making.
  • Flexible: Just because the vision is focused doesn’t mean it can’t be flexible. Great visions can integrate changing conditions. Be careful though—flexibility doesn’t mean we can be undisciplined in our approach.
  • Communicable: Like I mentioned before, doublespeak or confusing terminology only complicates matters. The entire organization needs to be able to successfully understand and share the organization’s approach to customer experience.
Step 4: Communicating the Vision for Buy-In

Ensure that as many people as possible understand and accept the vision. This is very similar to the previous step , but depending on your organizations structural complexity, this can be more involved than it sounds. Consider your channels of communication: do you have a company newsletter, portal, Yammer? How about physical locations for the vision? What about the communication for specific ar-eas of the business: does it make sense to tweak the approach for engineers and tweak it again for human resources? Here are the four aspects of communicating the vision:

  • Simple: Avoid the technical speak or discipline-specific jargon. This is a much bigger issue than some believe. I’ve witnessed UX and CX teams struggle mightily because few people in the larger organization respond to terms like “cognitive load.” As any designer engineer, or architect can attest, “simple” can be tough but is certainly achievable.
  • Vivid: Bulleted lists (like the one I’m writing now) only go so far. Can you visualize the vision? Metaphors and analogies, where appropriate, are great ways to help everyone connect with the vision.
  • Repeatable: The concepts within the CX vision should be easy for everyone in the organization to repeat. Everyone. Without exception.
  • Invitational: This isn’t a decree from on high. This is a vision that should be treated like a two-way conversation within your organization.
Step 5: Empowering Broad-Based Action

Remove as many barriers as possible and unleashing people to do their best work. Freedom to make the right decisions and to be free from organizational barriers is key to success. The idea behind Step 2 (Creating the Guiding Coalition) is to ensure broad-based action is possible. Poor communication across management and silly managerial restrictions get in the way of the best work employees have to offer. Remove layers, synchronize activities, and simplify structures.

Step 6: Generating Short-term Wins

Create visible, unambiguous success as soon as possible. This is where planning pays off in a big way. If your team takes a long time to show results, in any scenario, the organization’s trust is going to begin to waver. Let’s be honest, the short-term wins also help to silence the haters, including those who believe that the only path to success is the one they’ve created. Help them see the light by demonstrating short-term wins early and often.

Step 7: Never Letting Up

Consolidate gains and producing more change. At the end of the day we’re talking about behavior change. Behavior change takes commitment and discipline. One success can lead to another and another, but stopping to rest on a single success results in the organization losing focus on the long-term vision. Customers will continue to experience your product or service, so we can’t allow ourselves to ease up on understanding and designing for their experience?

Regular check-ins with the guiding coalition can help ensure that success can be repeated and that you understand why failures occurred. There will be failures, but they are only detrimental if we don’t learn from them. Share your successes across teams and demonstrate a continued focus on reducing inter-team dependencies.

Step 8: Make it Stick

Anchor new approaches in the culture for sustained change. Change isn’t simple. If a change effort is going to be successful, it requires an intentional and sustained effort. As I mentioned before, we’re looking to change behaviors and ultimately this directly impacts culture. A way to tell that your organizational change efforts have been successful is when they become embedded in the organizational culture. Kotter reminds us of the fundamental rules around culture change:

  • Proof wins: The “new” way needs to be demonstratively better than the old way.
  • Visibility: Ensure everyone associated to the change process sees and fully comprehends the successes.
  • People will leave: When real change occurs it’s going to make some people uncomfortable enough to leave. This is always tough and an inevitable reality.
  • Reinforce new norms: Reinforce the new norms and culture with veteran and new employees using incentives, rewards, and promotions—whatever makes the most sense for your organization.

Be Realistic and Maintain Your Commitment to Change

Kotter’s model raises great points and prescribes a thoughtful and intentional strategy for organizational change. Consider how to make this model work for your organization. When it comes to using the model, consider how broadly or narrowly it can be applied to your customer experience change effort.

It’s also important to recognize that each application of the model may look a little different depending on your business. Where can you get the most out of your change initiative? Above all we need to be considerate of the entire organization when we strive for change. Being realistic about how change efforts need to be considered holistically within your organization is the first step to real and sustainable change.


Image of abstract colors in water courtesy Shutterstock.

post authorPete Kinser

Pete Kinser, Pete is based in Denver, Colo. and is the Director of Experience Strategy at Universal Mind where he leads strategy, design, and research projects and teams. He works with leaders to help educate and encourage human-centered mindsets within organizations. Pete received a bachelor's degrees in Design and Psychology and a master's degree in Information Science from the University of Missouri. He is also a Adjunct Professor at the University of Denver where he teaches courses focused on design-thinking, user-centered design and customer experience. You can also reach Pete via Twitter @petekinser


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