Here’s the big question at the heart of culture change.
Despite all the science and knowledge out there, all the insight on mindsets and behaviours, why do just a select handful of companies consistently ace customer experience, while everyone else still struggles to bring it to life? What exactly is that ‘magic bullet’ that separates the best from the rest?
In a 2014 TED Talk that has been viewed by 4.5 million people, the philosopher Ruth Chang offers advice on how to make ‘hard choices.’ Which career should I pursue? Should I break up or get married? Where should I live? Big decisions like these can feel painfully difficult, and Chang suggests that lists of pros and cons won’t help.
Hard choices are hard, she explains, when both options have good and bad points, but neither is better overall. Nor are they equally good; if so we could simply flip a coin. Instead, hard choices are hard because they rely on a fourth, less ‘tangible’ factor than concepts such as better, worse or equal. They rely on our beliefs about who we are.
“When we choose between options that are on a par, we can do something really rather remarkable,” Chang insists. “We can put our very selves behind an option. Here’s where I stand. Here’s who I am, I am for banking. I am for chocolate donuts. This response in hard choices is a rational response, but it’s not dictated by reasons given to us. Rather, it’s supported by reasons created by us. When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are.”
People on the sales and service frontline have to make hundreds of hard choices every day. Every time they talk to a customer, they must make choices around their approach and language: the questions they ask, the questions they don’t, the solutions they offer, the tone they take, the personal elements they do or don’t incorporate . And although they always know what they want – to sell that product, or solve that problem – they rarely think about ‘what they are for’ as they do it. That’s why customer experience is so notoriously inconsistent. When you don’t have a compass, every journey is a wild, directionless ride.
The same goes for conversations across the organisation itself. From the way a manager signs off emails to the questions the Head of HR asks a new recruit, a company’s ‘voice’ is defined by all the collective conversations had by its people, day to day – and the result is often a dissonant mess.
So: what are you for?
An organisation’s ‘character’ is a shared project. The people inside it, at every level, must repeatedly have conversations that reiterate the essence of what it is – and what it is not. But it is only when they understand its ethos and behaviours as deeply and instinctively as their own, that their conversations will stop being buggy algorithms full of hard choices and start to become effortlessly effective, individually nuanced and deeply human experiences.
So it’s time for you to make the hard choice at the heart of culture change. Are you ready to do the day-to-day work it takes to create a climate where both people and customer experience can thrive, starting right now.
Are you for change? Or are you for the status quo?
I truly believe that if you set the right tone, create a climate of permission, embed resourceful mindsets, train for new behaviours and rapidly replicate the high performing ones every day, you can create an organisation that delights customers, engages its workforce and delivers market-leading financial results. I believe it because I’ve seen it happen.
But it only happens when – and this is the crunch point – the leaders of that organisation are absolutely committed to making it work. When they make it their job to do all those things first, more creatively, more consistently and more visibly than anyone else, every single day. When they make it the one vital priority of their job to tell stories and have conversations, above writing reports and answering emails and filing expenses and even making coffee.
And the truth is: that’s hard. You’ll come across lots of scepticism, barriers and failures along the way. You’ll struggle to secure enough investment, you’ll clash against entrenched attitudes, you’ll have a hard time convincing people that, this time, the change is for real.
But if that’s what you’re for, you’ll keep going. And if you keep going, you’ll find that a passionate, tenacious, action-backed sense of purpose is highly infectious. You’ll start to build a tribe of tempered radicals who take on the mission to make things better as their own. You’ll start to spread your why, just not your how, and as great minds from Dan Pink to Simon Sinek have demonstrated, the why is the secret sauce that flavours the whole dish.
We’re compulsive doers. We relentlessly test our ideas, gather data and get hands-on. But we also know that, unless you know what you’re for, and commit to it and broadcast it, all that doing will go nowhere.