Working with the Chief Customer Officer at Northeast Utilities, Johnny D. Magwood, has been a great experience.  We had a stimulating conversation last week about the challenges and opportunities that surround a shift in organizational culture to one that focuses on the customer.  He recalled an experience he had early in his career where the organization he was working for had determined to be more customer-focused.  He described that the entrance to the company headquarters doubled as a smoking area for employees.  The lobby area where customers passed through on a daily basis was a mine-field of ashtrays and cigarette smoke that individuals had to wade through to make it to their appointments.  He wondered what kind of impression that environment made on customers. Rightly so, he assumed customers were left with the notion that the company did not value them and were OK with putting obstacles in the the way of them having a positive experience.  Recognizing this issue, management removed all the ashtrays and instructed employees to smoke elsewhere.  Within a week, the ashtrays were covertly brought back in and old habits resumed.  Eventually, through persistent effort,  the smoking area in the lobby was permanently shifted to another area – away from customer’s view but it took awhile longer to shift people’s mindset around building an environment that worked for the customer.  

I loved this story because I think it so clearly describes how hard change can be, how difficult it is to see things from another’s perspective and how everything we do speaks loudly.  Every organization faces this same issue when moving toward a customer-focused culture.  How do we really get leaders and employees to see things through the customers eyes?  Yes, it takes time but it can help to walk in the customer’s shoes.  Here is a way to accomplish that:

Create an experience called “Customer for a Day.”   Ask a small group of employees to enter the workplace on a particular day “as if” they were a customer.  Perhaps ask them to wear a baseball cap that says “customer” or don a “customer” button on their jacket.   Ask them to tour the building or facility looking at it through the lens of the customer.  Give them a checklist of things to look for that might include:

  • How would you describe the environment?
  • Did employees look busy / focused / friendly?
  • Was the environment neat and well organized?
  • What did you notice that let you know it was a customer-focused company?

  • Did you run into any obstacles or red flags?

Gather the “customer employees” after the exercise and debrief with them.  It can be an eye-opening experience and one that can be shared with all employees through company newsletters or intranet profiles.  Make it a quarterly event and select new employees for each “Customer for a Day” experience.