audience at a concert cheering
PHOTO: Nicholas Green

While customer experience strategies and transformations must include a priority focus on the employee experience, they often don’t. Many companies believe they can improve the customer experience without improving the employee experience.

Big mistake. The correlation is real. Happy employees lead to happy customers.

So why don’t we just talk about people experience strategies, instead? Let’s focus on making companies more people-centric rather than profit-centric. Yes, companies must make money, but there’s a better way of doing it that benefits all constituencies involved.

Linking People-Centricity to Business Success

We already know great customer experiences drive business growth and success. What most companies fail to acknowledge is that the people behind the delivery of that customer experience must come first. Focusing on employees isn’t only the right thing to do, it’s good for business too.

This is nothing new: witness the Service-Profit Chain, a linkage established by James L. Heskett, W. Earl Sasser and Leonard A. Schlesinger more than 20 years ago. As you can see, when you put employees first, they’ll do right by your customers – and the business benefits in the end.

service profit chain

Related Article: How an Engaged Front-Line Workforce Contributes to Great Customer Service

Changing Culture, Mindsets and Behavior

So how do you design a people-centric culture? For most companies it involves a culture shift, a mindset shift and a behavior shift.

Let’s start with a definition of culture. What is it?

My favorite definition is this one (attributed to both Gerard Seijts and Herbert Kelleher): "Culture is what people do when no one is looking.” To add a little more detail, culture = values + behavior.

That’s it: core values and behaviors. When a business’s core values are clearly defined, the right behavior is easy, a no-brainer. That’s what we mean when we say, “what people do when no one is looking.” And these behaviors are part of what I’m referring to when I talk about a culture shift, a mindset shift and a behavior shift.

And once again, if you need further incentive, focusing on culture and a culture shift benefits your bottom line:

"Companies that are customer-centric are 60 percent more profitable." –Deloitte

"A stronger culture leads companies to perform higher in revenue growth, operating margin, and total shareholder return." –Aon Hewitt

Those stats are all rosy and lovely, but the current reality and the current culture story for most companies is much different. More like this...

"18 percent of companies with CX programs still arent engaged in any major programs to create a customer-centric culture." –Forrester 

I’ve used these stats because I’ve allowed for “customer-centric” to include a primary focus on employees, something that I’m sure these reputable consulting firms have taken into consideration.

So, the key to developing this culture, first and foremost, is well-defined core values and guiding principles, which provide a clearer outline of behaviors that align with the core values, behaviors that support a people-first mindset.

Related Article: How a Strong Corporate Culture Translates to Organizational Success

Painting the Big Picture

Next up are mission, vision, and purpose. When everyone knows the vision and the objectives of the company, they feel included and part of something bigger, working together to make sure the business is successful.

Once the company is grounded in well-defined and clearly-communicated mission, vision, values, and purpose, they’ve got a solid foundation for a people-first culture.

“You don’t build a business. You build people, and people build the business.” – Zig Ziglar

Company Leadership Plays a Critical Role

But there’s one more critical component to this culture: company leadership. There are three aspects with regards to leadership that I believe are important to a people-first culture.

  1. Executive alignment
  2. Servant leadership
  3. Truly human leadership

Related Article: 5 Ways to Improve Employee Engagement Through Good Leadership

Executive Alignment

No culture transformation can be successful without executive alignment. All executives must be committed to the vision and goals of the transformation. They must all be on the same page when it comes to your organization’s culture, the goals of the business, and how the business should be run. They must also all lead by example and model the behaviors they wish to see from their employees.

Unfortunately, most executive teams are not in alignment. They don’t work as a “team;” they function more as a “working group” or as a “committee.” Simon Sinek says that a team is not a group of people who work together but a group of people who trust each other. Trust is key among your executive team, as is psychological safety, or the ability to speak freely without recourse from the person in charge. If your executives don’t feel like they can share an opinion with the CEO without recourse, then there’s definitely an issue. That also ends up trickling down to their interactions with their employees. It certainly limits their ability to create an environment that feels safe for employees.

Servant Leadership

Executives and leaders must come to work every day and put their people first and themselves second. They must trust, respect, listen, empathize, and recognize that their employees' needs come before their own. They must also develop people and ensure they become high performers. This is servant leadership. It’s a mindset shift and a behavior shift; you are a servant first, leader second. Servant leadership must be a basic tenet of any people-first culture.

Truly Human Leadership

While servant leadership is powerful, I believe Truly Human Leadership goes one step further to encourage leaders to not only adopt a servant leader mentality but to also treat their people like family. In addition to a workplace culture based on trust, respect and caring, leaders must choose to put their employees' well-being ahead of all other goals and outcomes. Truly human leadership is about measuring success by the way company leaders touch the lives of people. Instead of viewing employees as a cog in the wheel to company success, truly human leaders view employees as humans, as family, as family members.

Imagine the employee experience if that was the case, if leaders cared about employees, their families and their well-being. What if they measured success by how they touched their employees' lives? A little humanity and humaneness would go a long way.