In this article, three key speakers at this week's annual Customer Experience Leadership conference, each with a distinct point-of-view on how to create a customer-centric culture, preview their upcoming talks and share best-practices.

How to 'Hug' Your Customers
by Jack Mitchell

Late one evening, Debbie, a veteran sales associate at our flagship luxury retail store Mitchells, received a call from a panicked customer. He had to be on a flight the next morning to talk to Swiss bankers about customer service, but he had nothing appropriate to wear for the sudden meeting. Debbie told him not to worry and to come down to the store.

At Mitchells, there is a near-immaculate record of customers' prior preferences, size, frame measurements, and purchase history stored in a database. Before the panicked customer arrived, Debbie pulled out basic suits, shoes, ties, and a blue blazer—all based on his profile. She handed him a cappuccino (which she knew he preferred over regular coffee) as he walked in.

The next day, the customer bragged about Mitchells to the Swiss bankers during his speech on impeccable customer service. As he looked inside the lapel of his blue blazer, he discovered a card that Debbie had placed inside. To his surprise, it read, "Happy Birthday."

Over a decade ago, I began to use the word "hugging" to describe a culture of embracing the customer. "Hugging" entails any act that embraces or connects with the customer in a human way—much like Debbie's surprise birthday card.

Here are the three keys to "hugging" your customer today.

1. Operate at the data frontier

Debbie's story captures the essence of how data and technology have helped our family business maintain a customer-centric focus that began from the moment Mom and Dad started bringing in coffee for customers in pots, straight from home. From the beginning, the philosophy of the Mitchells business has been to place the customer first, and remain on the technological frontier of listening and learning.

2. Treat your customers as friends

Our customers are serviced in a way that shows them that we truly see them as friends; they receive a totally personalized experience and a feeling of fun when first walking into a store. It's "Barb" versus "Barbara," or "Jack" versus "John." Moreover, as Debbie's story showed, this personalization is also, in part, driven by technology.

3. Always instill trust

In customer service, trust is one of the guiding principles. At Mitchells, every single sale is mapped back to every single customer. When you, the customer, walk into the store, we know not only your phone number but also your cufflink preferences, or whether you like Dolce more than Armani. We maintain a window into our customers' lives, but in a discreet, confidential way.

I often say that we are in the people business, not the clothing business. A commitment to personalized customer service is good for anybody that has customers. Overall, for any business that values trust and a personal experience, the goal is for the customer to feel the "hugs" and walk away saying, "Wow, they really care about me as a person."

Customer-Centric Cultures Start at the Top
by Dr. Larry Senn

Leaders who once considered customer service as something that's soft, or not vital to the organization's bottom line, have had to shift their mindset and change their organizations, because strong evidence shows that customer-centric companies strongly outperform their rivals.

But changing organizational culture is not easy to do.

Organizational cultures are a collective set of values, habits and behaviors, and unwritten and written rules of how people work with each other, with customers, and with other stakeholders. Just as with changing any habit, when a CEO sees the need to create a more customer-centric culture, he or she will have to overcome inertia or resistance to change—a phenomenon we call "The Jaws of Culture."

In our work with CEOs for more than 30 years, we have found that change must begin at the top. Here are four priorities for CEOs to keep in mind when transforming their culture to ensure that customer experience stands out as a central focus.

1. Become the sponsor and cast the right shadow

A customer-centric culture cannot be created or sustained unless the CEO is seen as the sponsor—he or she must serve as the catalyst and "chief culture officer" to drive the transformation and embed it deeply.

We have coined the term "Shadow of the Leaders." It is based on early findings of our research, which shows that organizations take on characteristics and behaviors of their leaders. People have personalities, which play a great role in their success. It's much easier to work on the structure, the numbers, or the strategy. Yet, all too often, your company's initiatives can be chewed up by the "Jaws of Culture."

Leaders can cast the "shadow," right from the CEO level, by making customers a priority, by talking about customers and their needs in all their communications and presentations, and by spending time with customers to understand their needs (and truly making that a part of their priorities).

2. Make customers the focus in all communications, programs, and policies

Leaders need to have customers or service as part of the explicit, overall purpose of the organization; customers are, after all, why the company exists.

Therefore, everything from website content, corporate brochures, and press releases to the programs and policies implemented across training, HR, and other disciplines... must consistently make it clear that stellar customer service is not just a priority but the defining core of your brand.

Speaking about customer service as an integral part of your business will help make such customer service a reality.

3. Do for your customers what you do for your employees (and vice versa)

In our culture-shaping sessions with organizations, we often talk about the impact of moods on decisions and thinking. We call this phenomenon the "Mood Elevator." When employees are having a bad day, you can be certain that the customers they serve will also have a bad day.

How do you make sure both have good days as often as possible? The key is to help employees to connect to the belief that customers are central to them, and make those employees really believe that great customer service is part of their purpose. If they don't, and if their focus is elsewhere, then their customers' focus will likely not be on the great experience or product that causes them to buy and become loyal brand ambassadors.

I remember when we began our first retail engagement on customer service, we ended up with a slogan that captured this sentiment: "A great place to shop, a great place to work." It's hard to get one without the other. It all starts with the corporate culture that you intentionally cultivate.

4. Understand your customer

At the Conference Board's Customer Experience Leadership Conference, I will be co-presenting with Sharen Turney, CEO of Victoria's Secret. I am continually impressed by how that company really knows its customers. From Victoria's Secret sales associates all the way to Turney and her direct-report team, everyone intimately knows the customer. They can describe her, they can see the world through her eyes, and they can virtually think like her.

Their mindset encompasses the entire organization—how quickly people respond to their customers' needs, and, for example, how merchandise is designed or changed based on intuition that needs aren't being satisfied or have changed.

As business continues to become ever more competitive, leaders at the top are realizing that they have to differentiate themselves. We have seen that much of that differentiation begins with the customer experience.

Take those preceding four steps to make great customer service a part of your company's mindset and its brand ethos—and your business will reap the benefits.

Great Customer Service Starts With Culture
by Teresa Laraba

At Southwest Airlines, we have a simple motto about customer service: Employees should treat customers the same way they're treated as employees.

That motto and approach entail not only assuming a friendly, approachable attitude but also enjoying yourself at work and in turn, having the desire to serve your customers.

In short, people and their abilities have the power to deliver a product that can distinguish your brand. Here are a few tips to start doing just that.

Interact with customers regularly

At Southwest, we regularly host organized but informal chats with our customers. We invite customers who are frequent fliers of ours, and customers who have not been frequent fliers, to sit down with our leadership. The chats might be led by anyone from our CEO to directors who oversee customer service, in a face-to-face, roundtable setting to discuss how we are meeting expectations, what we are doing well, and what we could improve upon.

It is amazing how attuned customers are to your culture and your ability to serve and connect—even those who are not our most frequent purchasers.

Use social media

We have over one million Facebook fans and over one million Twitter followers, so we also have the opportunity for customers to be providing us ongoing feedback. We also have a Southwest blog that customers tend to love:

Several years ago, our president, chairman and CEO, Gary Kelly, put out a simple question on the blog: "What would our customers think of assigned seating?" In a very inexpensive way, we were able to receive some immediate feedback. Finally, we also regularly look at any customer correspondence we get.

Empower your employees

As we approach our 40th anniversary, we are more challenged with maintaining our customer-service culture than reinventing it. That challenge is continually met from within our organization rather than outside it: You can't just go directly to the consumer and forget the vehicle via which that service is provided—i.e., your employees.

Recently, one of our pilots made news when he held an airplane for 12 minutes to give a passenger time to meet his daughter after an unspeakable tragedy in their family. In this industry, waiting 12 minutes at a gate, ready to go, could make or break on-time arrival. But the pilot—since nicknamed "Captain Compassion"—stood by his decision based on his customer's situation.

That example explains what we have said many times: We are in the customer-service business; we just happen to fly airplanes.

Many great ideas will be shared at the upcoming Customer Experience Leadership conference, but I expect that one central tenet will hold true: The golden rule is to treat your customers as you'd want to be treated. It's a simple saying and a cliché, but your business is doomed to failure if placing a high priority on customer service is not a part of the fabric of your culture.

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Best-Practices in Customer-Experience Leadership: Voices From the Top

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Jack Mitchell is CEO of The Mitchells Family of Stores (Mitchells and Richards in Connecticut, Marshs in New York, and Wilkes Bashford in California) and author of Hug Your Customers.
Dr. Larry Senn is a pioneer in the field of corporate culture. He is the founder and chairman of Senn-Delaney, the most experienced organizational culture-shaping firm in the world.
Teresa Laraba is SVP of customer services at Southwest Airlines, in its 40th year of service.