Recently, one of my colleagues, travelled up to Manchester for a meeting.

On the train, she sat opposite a young woman, who was hammering away on her laptop. She noticed that there was a sticker on the woman’s laptop lid: Work Hard. Have Fun. Make History. She loved it. She wanted one. So she asked the young woman where it came from. 

The young woman explained that she was a Procurement Officer for Amazon Logistics and, without any prompting, launched into a compelling story about Amazon. For over an hour, she explained why those particular words had been chosen by Jeff Bezos as the company’s internal motto, how they were brought to life by leaders inside the business, and how she personally strove to make them show up in her work every day.

My colleague shared this with me and I immediately started sharing it with our clients. Because it’s a perfect example of a much-neglected phenomenon: a leader who knows how to set the tone.

Tone is at the top of the customer experience tree. Set the right tone, and it will nurture the right climate, which will then drive the right conversations and result in the right customer experience. Get it wrong, and however much time and effort you put into training skills, behaviours and mindsets, they just won’t ‘take.’

Tone isn’t your strategy. It isn’t what you do, or how you do it. Tone is all about who you are. But it’s not just the promise about who you are as an organisation. It’s the sound of that promise, playing out in conversations across your business every day. Here’s a challenge: next time you have a leadership meeting, count the number of times the words ‘customer’ and ‘people’ show up. Seriously, try it. It can be a pretty sobering exercise.

It’s so easy to think that ‘being customer focused’ is the job of the front line staff, because they’re the ones having the direct conversations with customers every day. But the customer has to be at the heart of every decision your leadership team makes, every process your operational guys design – even the language you use within the boardroom.

To set the tone for a truly customer-focused organisation, leaders need to do three things.

1. Know what you stand for

Most organisations have an ethos, and a set of service principles. But way too many of those lovely promises remain just that: words. Fom IKEA’s ‘no service service’ philosophy to Zappo’s ‘delight your customers at any cost’ approach, successful ethoses take many forms, but they all have a single underlying characteristic.

They show up.

To make this happen, you need to tell stories. Stories are our oldest technology. They help us feel a part of something larger than ourselves, give us a sense of purpose, and smuggle beliefs and information into our brains in an emotive and memorable way. It is the job of leaders to inspire their teams to find and tell stories that reflect the nature and values of their company. Again and again. Every day.

2. Do Symbolic Acts

In one organisation I know, the higher up the food chain you are, the further away from the building you park. In another, every person at every level of the business deals directly with customers, either by taking calls or working in stores, every month. If they don’t demonstrate that they can deal with customers, they don’t get promoted – whatever their role or seniority.

These are examples of what I call Symbolic Acts: powerful public demonstrations of a leadership team’s own commitment to the company ethos. ‘Undercover operations’ where the CEO secretly returns to the shop floor, or one-off, away-day gimmicks won’t cut it. Symbolic Acts must be visible, consistent, repeatable and involve an element of sacrifice.

Symbolic Acts become things that people in a business can talk about, things that they are able name-check as evidence that their leaders are personally invested in their customer approach. They’re not just actions – they’re mini-stories that can send your ethos viral.

3. Create a permission culture

Giving permission is scary, but it really is one of those things that separates average customer experience from the amazing kind. That’s because process only accounts for 80-90% of what’s required in a sales and service job. It’s the 10-20% of grey, the space for something personal and flexible, that allows your front line staff to truly put your customers’ needs first. But they need your permission if they’re going to make it work.

Leaders are often afraid that ‘giving permission’ will lead to broken processes, inappropriate behaviour, spiralling costs… in a word, anarchy.  But that absolutely won’t happen if they take responsibility for modelling and articulating what a good permission culture looks like. The trick is to establish clear bookends of what is and isn’t acceptable, and then (yep, you guessed it) tell stories – positive, inspiring stories which show permission working in context.

Setting the tone is the first step towards building a culture where both people and customer experience thrive.