"You can’t compromise on company culture: it’s all or nothing" Laurence Van Elegem - March 25, 2018

Interview Steven Van Belleghem 3

An interview with Steven Van Belleghem, nexxworks Partner and thought leader on the transformation of customer relationships and the future of marketing

Every excuse is good to interview the wonderful Steven Van Belleghem, but now that we are going on a fieldtrip to the very heart of customer innovation - with our Customers the Day After Tomorrow Tour in Silicon Valley - I had a particularly good reason to pick his brain. 

Life is all about choices, so we decided to talk about the ingredients of a customer centric company culture this time, though our innovation tour will go beyond that, showing all the latest trends in customer interfaces, AI, branding, retail as well as culture.

Everybody claims – or wants – to be customer centric, and company culture plays a major part in enabling that. Do you believe that it's possibe to change an old school, hierarchical and process-driven culture into a customer centric one? And, if so, how?

Steven: It can be done. It’s hard, but it can be done. I’ve seen several companies make that switch successfully. There’s Proximus, obviously, where the arrival of Dominique Leroy really turned that company around into a pioneer that’s extremely focussed on customers and innovation. And another example I love is the one from Carglass. 

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“Leadership is essential when it comes to culture change.”

When it comes to the ‘how’ of changing culture, leadership is absolutely crucial. If the management does not support the customer centric culture, the transition will never stick. You have to lead by belief, and by example. Carglass managed a big turnaround about 10 years ago into a culture of customer centricity. The former CEO Jean-Paul Teyssen, who enabled the transition, told me about that really Big moment when they realized that their own leadership behaviour was the biggest obstacle for their transformation. Just to give an example: if you tell your employees “from now on the customer comes first, no matter what” but your response to each new idea is “excellent, but make sure that it’s not too expensive” or “good, but don’t let that come in the way of achieving your sales targets”, they just won’t believe you. And they certainly won't act upon it. This type of response goes against the very metrics of customer centricity. Zappos measures completely different things: not how many calls customer service employees have per hour, but how likely the customer that talked to them would be to hire them. Your team will only believe you on the basis of your actions, not on the basis of what you say. Carglass really got that and acted upon that without compromise. It knew it needed the entire leadership on board: everyone had to talk the same language, believe it and act upon it.

You definitely can’t compromise on culture: it’s all or nothing. And your vision is an essential part of that culture. Let me illustrate with the fantastic example of Centraal Beheer Verzekeringen in The Netherlands. Much like most insurance companies, they had a low customer satisfaction and a very low Net Promotor Score (NPS), of zero. The CEO, Albert Spijkman,  decided to make a radical break and wanted to chase an NPS of 50. He did not want an incremental improvement to a score of 5. No, his focus was a score of 50. He went for 10X. He went big. That was 1,5 years ago and now they have an NPS of 50 for several of their services. How great is that? If you want the new culture wave to last, you cannot compromise. A little change is never enough.

“A string of 100 small things will add up to a giant leap forward, but they are a lot more manageable and efficient.”

What about the implementation of that vision? Do you believe in Big Bangs, too, in that case?

Steven: That’s very different. It’s almost impossible to roll out a radical vision in one track. I always tell our customers to move in small steps: a string of 100 small things will add up to a giant leap forward, but they are a lot more manageable and efficient. I tell them to find out what the small frustrations of their customers are and try to solve those. Or to look for those small opportunities that can help them move in the direction they want to end up in. It’s about taking the process with the customers very seriously. We like to talk about orchestrating the customer journey, but the customer IS the journey. So let them determine those little steps.

A culture is nothing less than the sum of all the employees. How do you get them all on board?  Setting the example, and acting out the change as leaders is important, but how do you get your team to always put the customer first?

Steven: You have to involve them, make them part of the change. Put them in charge of their own projects, so that they can experience what the customer is experiencing. So that they can really feel how much more satisfied the customer is. I remember sitting in this brainstorm with Smartphoto and there was this one enthusiastic lady that suggested to send gifts to people who had photographed weddings, anniversaries and all kinds of happy celebrations. Immediately the room buzzed with concerns of privacy, but the manager responded in the best possible way: “Let’s just test it: you have a gift budget of 500 euros per month and you’ll tell us what happened after three months.” Three months later, that lady entered the room with the biggest smile I have ever seen in my life and a huge stack of emails from customers thanking her. Happy customers make happy employees: I really believe that. That’s why they have to be involved in the change. You have to empower them.

“You have to win your team over one by one. There are no shortcuts.”

The same goes for the Efteling, one of my favorite companies in the world. They had this really cool vision for the Day After Tomorrow and a lot of it obviously involved new technologies. But people were concerned that this evolution would kill the romance and nostalgia that was so typical for The Efteling. So management wanted to help them experience their vision of the future in VR: every Friday, at 6 different times, 10 people got to “see” the future of the Efteling. 60 people per week of the about 3000 employees in total: every last one of them is included. And that’s how I believe it works: you have to win them over one by one. There are no shortcuts.

You say that “happy customers make happy employees”. Do you believe the opposite as well: that you have to make your employees happy so they can make the customer happy? Or does extreme customer centricity tend to work to the detriment of employee well-being?

Steven: I’ve visited hundreds of customer centric cultures during our many nexxworks innovation programs and it’s my experience that employees can’t make customers happy if they are not happy themselves. There are some exceptions: some customer-centric companies where every last little bit it automatized, like Amazon , don’t treat their staff as they should. But most of the customer obsessed companies I visit - especially those where the employees are the ones to service the client - have a very positive atmosphere and culture.

I was really impressed with Starbucks in Seattle, for instance. They have a very positive culture that lives and breathe customer centricity. Their values and philosophy are on every wall. There’s customer feedback everywhere: statistics and quotes, on all kinds of screens. The customer is present everywhere. One of the things that struck me most was their unique onboarding process: employees can’t actually work for 5 whole weeks when they are first hired but it’s their “mission” to get to know everyone, and drink coffee with them.  They really want employees to become buddies and integrate themselves into the ecosystem before they learn about “the job”. In most companies that’s the other way around: there is an intellectual training first and they expect that the social aspect will ‘happen’ later. Not at Starbucks, though. That’s how you build a culture.

Innovators in China - where we also organize Innovation Tours – are really Kings of Customer Centricity, just like the best pioneers in San Francisco. What’s the difference?

Steven: Everything moves at the speed of light in China. Their world evolves superfast and the pressure to perform as a company, and to change together with your customers, is exceedingly high. That’s why our tours over there are a culture shock. Now, you’ll also experience the Day After Tomorrow in Silicon Valley, but it will be more familiar. You can really steal with your eyes and use it over here: they are experimenting with what we’re still discussing over here. Both China and Silicon Valley are excellent showcases for our Day After Tomorrow and inexhaustible sources of inspiration for innovators. But for me personally, the biggest difference is one of familiarity. 

As a parting question: what is, after years of experience as a consultant, innovation tour guide and entrepreneur, your biggest learning about customer centricity?

Steven: With every decision, ask yourself the question “What would Joy do?”. I really wish I had seen Pixar's and Disney’s movie 'Inside Out' at an earlier stage in my career. Today, it has become a natural reflex for me: “Think about Joy”. Never focus on negative energy and on discussions which offer nothing for you or for your customers. Instead of arguing or debating, let Joy take the decisions. Even if it’s hard. Do not let those few difficult customers ruin the entire experience for the others. Like Zappos, that refuses to waste energy in chasing those customers that return damaged clothes. It focuses on offering Joy to the customers, and by doing so ignores a pond of loss in an ocean of. Just remember that: “What would Joy do?”. Let that be your mantra in customer centricity.

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Laurence Van Elegem B W 2016
Laurence Van Elegem

As nexxworks' Communications Director, Laurence is Editor in Chief of the nexxworks blog and in...

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