This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
Creating a customer-centric company is tough in the best of circumstances. You have to rebuild your company’s culture, which means helping employees learn new ways of thinking and acting. You have to entrust frontline employees with the critical task of generating loyalty and enthusiasm among customers. And you have to teach employees the skills they need to achieve those results.
How to foster so much learning? The best companies rely on at least six tools to encourage employees in changing their behavior and then to reinforce those changes.
- Training. Formal training is the traditional method. The training articulates the new objective. It spells out the expectations, the guidelines and some of the tools employees will need to be successful. Town hall meetings and regular communications from the CEO can reinforce the basic idea of customer-centricity. They can also emphasize the importance of learning new ways to interact with customers.
- High-velocity feedback. Because formal training is often removed from the day-to-day concerns of the job, many trainees forget what they heard in the classroom. The real learning comes when people try to apply the lessons and then get feedback on how they are doing. They take action, observe the outcome and draw a conclusion about how effective they were. Then they try again, altering their approach as necessary. The feedback, of course, has to be both quick and accurate. Over time, through many repetitions, employees come to understand what “works”—and eventually doing what works becomes second nature.
- Observation and coaching. A skilled observer or coach can speed the learning immeasurably, helping employees figure out where interactions are going wrong and how to improve them. For example, an Australian bank that was pursuing customer-centricity took four of its best team leaders—people who were unusually skilled at talking to customers, fixing their problems and getting to the root cause of the difficulty—off the line. It asked them to call back a number of customers and to reflect on what they learned. The group then went back onto the floor to coach other leaders and team members.
- Team learning. When people have the opportunity to share experiences, learnings and challenges with others on their team, they can ask each other: “Hey, did you try this?” or “Here’s what I did, and this is what happened” or “How do we solve problem X?” Peer sharing of this sort turbocharges the learning process.
- Organizational learning. If 10 people comparing notes and helping each other is good, then 100 or 1,000 people doing the same thing is even better. Of course, it can no longer be face to face; rather, a company needs a central team to analyze data and search for patterns. Aggregating large amounts of customer feedback may reveal patterns that wouldn’t be apparent to any individual team.
- Recognition and rewards. Attempts to change people’s behavior run a critical risk: They may be perceived as coercive rather than positive and helpful, and so turn people off from trying out the new behaviors. That’s why many companies take dramatic steps to acknowledge, recognize and reward people who learn new behaviors and begin getting great results. TD Bank, based in Toronto, has grown rapidly in the US partly because of its emphasis on service, as measured by its Customer WOW! Index. The bank makes a point of passing on stories about employees who went out of their way for a customer—and a traveling team of celebrants periodically shows up in crazy costumes to honor employees who consistently score high with customers.
In the early 1990s, Peter Senge’s book The Learning Organization was required reading for senior managers, and many companies ever since have been trying to achieve that ideal. Today, companies pursuing customer-centricity are leading the quest.
Rob Markey is a partner and director in Bain & Company's New York office and leads the firm's Global Customer Strategy and Marketing practice. Oliver Merkel is a partner in the Johannesburg office and a member of Bain's Consumer Products and Retail practices.