Ken Fine

Originally published in Fast Company on November 18th, 2014

What do the best CEOs do to connect themselves and their companies to their customers?

The habits of customer-centric CEOs like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Apple’s Tim Cook aren’t as hard to pick up as some executives might expect. Here are three things leaders can start emulating today to become more customer-centric and gain the insight into business opportunities and pain points that come with that focus.

Relentlessly Immerse Yourself in the Voice of the Customer

When CEOs evaluate their company’s customer experience, they often rely on summaries of organization-wide trends.

In my experience, truly customer-centric CEOs don’t let themselves become abstracted from the delight and frustrations of genuine customer voices. Instead, they listen to those voices—day in and day out. This connection to actual customer commentary provides insight into customer needs that abstract data cannot.

Many customer-centric CEOs use some variation of this strategy. Cook and T-Mobile CEO John Legere both read—and sometimes respond to—up to a hundred customer emails every day. Umpqua Bank takes a more theatrical approach, installing in every branch a silver phone with a direct line to CEO Ray Davies’s desk.

Require Your Employees to Dig In as Well

Customer-centric CEOs know it’s important that their entire organization makes those same authentic customer connections. That’s why they require their management and executive teams to regularly listen to customer voices.

In addition to building invaluable intuition, this habit motivates team members to fix pressing customer pain points and quickly pursue new business opportunities. A dip in your customer satisfaction metrics can feel quite abstract. Reading—or hearing—real customer commentary is a more visceral experience, and inspires action.

I’ve been in meetings with CEOs where they play recordings from their call-centers—both good and bad—for the entire executive team. Bezos notoriously uses a similar tactic, forwarding emails from unsatisfied customers to members of his team and demanding a fix within hours. When customer feedback comes from the top like this, everyone inside the organization will make it a priority.

Use Customer Voices to Make Important Decisions

Once they’re immersed in the customer voices, customer-centric CEOs use the resulting understanding for a purpose. They factor customer voices into daily and strategic decision-making and encourage everyone across their organization to do the same.

Giving customers a seat at the table informs the executive team’s intuition—making sure they stay grounded in customer needs when planning new initiatives and investments. Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren is known for such an approach, saying, “Macy’s has survived and thrived for 152 years . . . we can be here 152 years from now if we keep the customer at the center of all decisions.”

Historically, using customer voices strategically was a difficult and unreliable process. However, the rise of customer experience management systems has made them much more accessible. This transparency makes it much easier for people from the C-suite to the frontline to inform their actions with customer sentiment.

Are these the most important habits for CEOs who want to become more customer-centric? Are there any I’ve missed? If so, let me know at
Photo credit: Edith Soto