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Leadership Inspires

What Makes a Great Customer-Centric Leader?

Plenty of people can manage. But only a few can truly lead. It takes a mix of personal vision, passion, and integrity, along with business acumen, emotional intelligence, and psychology. Each year, our sister publication 1to1 Media selects 12 executives to be Customer Champions—customer-centric leaders who understand that engaged customers make a positive bottom-line impact. They’re innovative, determined, and creative leaders who treat customers as the valuable resource they are. Naturally, we wanted to hear from the 2014 class about how they approach leadership to drive customer momentum forward. 

What are some effective ways you lead your group? 

Deepak Khandelwal (Google): One of the things I spend a lot of my time on is getting everyone to understand my belief that providing a differentiated, positive customer experience is critical. Especially in the technology field where there are always newer and better products that are coming out. The key to getting people to adhere to your objectives and vision is to impart cross-functional ownership of the projects. In Google’s lingo, that means getting people onboard across products, marketing, finance, and sales, and then tying that into senior level objectives. You need people to understand that this is an important goal. All the way down to the front line in the organization, we’ve made it very clear that the customer experience is important. We also have a lot of recognition programs built in to celebrate when we provide a great experience. 

Glenn Schleicher (Cisco): It sounds simple, but hire people who demonstrate passion and empathy around the customer experience. People who will move mountains and challenge internal status quo at every turn in order to make improvements. Those who feel so accountable to the customer and how they feel about our customer service interactions, that they feel almost embarrassed, get motivated, and then use this to fuel the internal alignment and change needed. Also, lead by example: put yourself on the front line of customer feedback comments, look for themes, and selectively forward to individuals to act upon feedback. If they see you hyper-vigilant and attuned to feedback, listening, and acting with urgency, it sets the tone of how you’d like to see the entire organization behave.

Erik McKirdy ( First and foremost, lead by example. Commitment to high-touch customer service isn’t something we just talk about; managers are also engaged in dialoguing with customers. Second, associate empowerment is huge, and each team member is trusted to craft outstanding interactions and resolutions that are personalized for each instance. When associates know they have the brand’s trust in being the face of the company, they’re far more motivated to own the experience had by customers who get in touch.

Mike Lester (The Melting Pot): I lead our team to follow a customer-centric standard of service that we call the Perfect Night Out. The idea behind Perfect Night Out is to create a flawless guest experience. We empower our team members to deliver outstanding guest service that consistently exceeds guest expectations. Rather than adhering to the well-known mantra, “the customer is always right,” we take it to the next level by teaching our team members that “the guest perception” is always right. The Perfect Night Out standard encourages our team members to always put the guest first in every situation and serve them in any capacity possible. No matter how great or out of the ordinary the lengths it may take to exceed a guest’s expectations, we inspire our team members to go above and beyond. We train them to get to know each guest at a deeper level than operators in the average restaurant.

Anna DiGregorio (Marketplace Philadelphia Management): I started a program here called Cutting Edge, and Edge stands for Excellence Drives Great Experiences. This program was designed to help associates really put customer service at the forefront of everything that they do. It includes reminders to start the experience with a simple greeting, make eye contact, smile, and listen to what customers are requesting or what they need. I think that as long as you’re being treated in a kind manner and associates are trying to find what you need, or if they don’t have what you’re looking for, help you find it somewhere else, I feel like they’re providing our customers with a very good experience.

Gavin Woody (A Place for Mom): First, manage by walking around. Even though I’m a numbers guy, there is always something going on that doesn’t reveal itself in the numbers until it is too late. I spend time out on the floor with our associates (the people doing the work!) and travel to talk to our front-line folks in other locations. Hearing about their pain points, telling me about a new type of call they’ve never had before, or answering a question is time well spent. Second, listen to calls. Each week, my leadership team and I get in a room for an hour to listen to a random sample of calls. We then go around the room and discuss what went right and what didn’t go well to ensure that our quality monitoring program is calibrated against that. This is another way we can tap into the customer experience that may be hard to see in the numbers. Third, balance performance reviews and one on ones. I have weekly staff meetings where we review our metrics and then have each department leader quickly review three areas: Accomplished Last Week, Upcoming This Week, and Help Needed. I also have one-on-one sessions with my direct reports. We don’t talk about numbers in these meetings. These are check-in points where we mostly discuss people management.



What do you look for in a leader who can keep customer momentum going?

Tom Mueller (ADP): Our most successful leaders are those who, I believe, are looking at everything from the client or associate’s perspective as opposed to the internal metric. Whether it’s a productivity metric, or even a quality metric, it’s looking at everything from the outside in. It’s important to keep that perspective in all areas of the business.

Gavin Woody: The best customer-centric leader must drive continuous improvement by always listening to the customer and reacting.  It is very easy to “set it and forget it” when it comes to processes, whether it be an IVR or a quality monitoring program. But I challenge my team to remember that, not only is the customer evolving in terms of when and how they want to contact or be contacted (i.e. chat, email, Facebook, etc.), but our business is also growing and changing.  Basically, what worked yesterday may not work today. We need to be flexible, and not be scared of changing things.

Mike Lester: We look for people who have the hospitality gene—people who genuinely, sincerely want to make others happy. All other motivations fall to second place. Being able to deliver our guest-centric Perfect Night Out standard of service starts with true, genuine desire to make guests happy. Making others happy provides such a great feeling that employees always want more. You can’t talk about guest service without talking about sourcing, hiring, and retaining the right team members. We are keenly aware that people are an integral part of the execution. You can’t train a hospitality gene but you can awaken it. You can awaken it by making sure you point out the successes and how much of a difference providing exceptional service can make for guests. Our operators show their team members how special and memorable our dining experience is for guests. We teach our team members that we have a commitment to our guests to make these occasions perfect.

Gregg Tilston (Flight Centre Travel Group): The best customer champion leaders have the ability to recognize opportunity (or challenge), genuinely empathize with the person or community engaging the brand, recognize the best response tactic, and create an engagement that leaves the person or community with a positive view of the brand.

What are the biggest challenges to being an effective customer-centric leader? 

John Wompey (Foot Locker): Getting each individual in the organization, one at a time, to understand the value of the voice of the customer and using the detail from the feedback—along with combined results and text analytics—to change behavior which ultimately creates a customer-centric culture.

Kyle Groff (JetBlue): I would say the biggest challenge is probably what it’s always been—trying to justify the profit associated with customer experience. It’s such a challenge when looking at the customer experience to try to quantify its financial impact. I think intuitively most people would admit that a happy customer likely leads to more profit. But it’s difficult to actually show that statistically in a number that people will stand behind and say, “This is why we need to focus on the customer because it’s worth this amount of money.”

Jim McCann ( We’ve embraced the new technologies and we’ve made a commitment to be a transparent organization, [especially on social media]. But, then you get into a customer service environment where people who are annoyed, have an agenda, or are just ticked off for one reason or another. This can eviscerate you in social media. Some uninformed media might look at that and say, “Oh, they have a terrible problem.” The big challenge for us is to have the strength of our convictions, to say, “We made a decision, even though it looks like it is hurting us in the short term.” Our thoughtful customers engage with us on this dialogue, from whom I sought out their opinion. And our internal team stays committed, and has the courage to stay the course and be authentic. 

Gavin Woody: One of our most difficult jobs is to identify the various “personas” or customer segments to develop semi-customized approaches for different customers. Figuring out what is actually best for the customer is hard. They say the “customer is always right,” but sometimes customers don’t know what they need.

Erik McKirdy: By far the biggest challenge is moving forward in today’s increasingly customer-driven brand relationship world with systems and processes that are decades old. Social media in particular has completely redefined how consumers perceive and engage with brands, and companies that are still deploying antiquated technologies aren’t able to keep up with the trend. Even the best intentions of a customer-centric leader can’t be served by old technologies.