Building a customer-centric culture is occupying the minds and activities of a lot of companies that I’m talking with lately. This is great, because culture is the difference between going through the motions of a script and internalizing a set of values that dictate actions beyond the script.

Let me give an example: I recently was on the phone with an incredibly chipper call center rep at a telecommunications company. He didn’t answer either of the two questions that I had, yet remained friendly throughout the call. As the call ended, he said: “We aim not just to meet your expectations, but exceed them. Have I done that for you today?” Not only was the question a setup that will skew results, but the asking of the question made it clear that the company hadn’t succeeded in infusing customer-centric DNA into at least this person. A more customer-centric response is what you typically get from Vanguard or Fidelity: “I’m sorry that I can’t answer your questions. Let me find someone who can. Would you like to hold or can I call you back?”

Don’t get me wrong: Company intentions are important. Before I get into the culture part, I always step back with clients and ask "what kind of culture?" Don Norman's story about Southwest Airlines, in which the company refused to give customers reserved seats, food, and baggage transfers is a great example. The company's primary value proposition to customers is low prices (along with on-time service that's fun). That sets the stage for the kind of culture the company sets out to create. It's not customer-centric at all costs. It's focused on what’s valuable to customers.

However, once defined, that’s where the real work begins. Companies have several important levers to pull: hiring (recruitment, selection process), socialization (training, storytelling, rituals/routines), and rewards (formal, informal).

In terms of hiring, companies like Whole Foods focus on getting the right people in the door to start with, so that their socialization builds on fueling a fire that’s already there. Volution (a software company) infuses job announcements with its customer-centric values, and KeyBank tests applicants for natural approaches to customer issues that align with the company’s values

While training is an important aspect of socializing employees, informal activities like storytelling and rituals are powerful tools that imbue a deeper sense of values within the day-to-day context of employees’ lives. Lego includes links to audio recordings of customers in its monthly voice of the customer newsletter so that employees can hear the emotion. Customer experience expert Jeanne Bliss has her clients bring jars of marbles to each meeting, one with new customers and the other with lost customers so that staff can visualize the impact of bad experiences.

Many firms focus on formal rewards systems like tying customer metrics to variable compensation such as bonuses. This is important, but many of the customer experience leaders I speak with point to informal rewards as being as powerful or more so than the formal rewards. At a very high level, the idea of informal rewards can flow all the way up to corporate citizenship, social responsibility, or sustainability kinds of issues: Do employees believe in the greater cause of the company? Beyond that, I've seen a few approaches to the informal rewards: 1) routine celebrations/awards (e.g., customer testimonials for individuals at weekly staff meetings at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, a daily lineup at Ritz, "wow" awards at KeyBank); 2) peer-to-peer awards (e.g., "Key Kudos" at KeyBank, "Heros of the Heart" at Southwest Airlines, "Green Apron Awards" at Starbucks); and 3) customer-nominated awards (e.g., "Bravo" awards at Starbucks).

On the formal awards side, in addition to variable compensation tied to key customer metrics, I've also seen companies tie career advancement to them (e.g., Enterprise with its Enterprise Service Quality Index, John Deere's Champion's Program, Time Warner for installation/service staff).

 If you are interested in learning more, I encourage you to check out my Forrester report, "How To Build A Customer-Centric Culture."