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Customer Experience A Struggle? Put Culture First Says Deloitte Exec

JOSH LEVINE, Nov 17, 2020

[Executive Q&A]

Many companies implore employees to create a great customer experience, but delivery almost always falls short. This strategic deficit leaves leaders to wonder what they miss. Deloitte’s culture change under the leadership of Sonal Naik offers a lesson. With over 20 years of consulting experience in the professional service industry, Sonal says that the two concepts of customer centricity and culture can’t be separated.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sonal Naik, Executive Leader of Deloitte Catalyst

Josh Levine: Thanks for talking with me, Sonal. I’ve been a consultant, too, so I understand how hard it can be to differentiate between professional services providers. How did you and your team get to customer experience as a differentiator? Isn’t it something everyone says?

Sonal Naik: Hi, Josh. Yes, we did a study that tried to unpack how Deloitte differentiated itself from other firms. We found that the results sounded ordinary, which was discouraging at first. How could cliches like “responsiveness” and “insight” set us apart?

Josh Levine: Exactly. Every consultant starts to sound the same after a while.

Sonal Naik: But, that time spent thinking about the customer experience led our team to develop the concept of ‘moments that matter’ and specific IP around the ‘moves’ we should make in these moments. We found that our success or failure with a customer depends on what we do in these critical moments. That is where trust is built or degraded. We codified this learning into a curriculum and delivered it in a unique workshop-based approach in addition to traditional training to our entire firm, which was around 60,000 people at the time. The results were fascinating. The concept of creating a richer experience morphed our own internal culture. Internalizing the importance of moments began a sea change of empathy, inquiry, and storytelling that became a top-down mandate across the practice.

JL: I appreciate how, through the lens of “moments matter,” you were able to identify specific behaviors that needed to be developed. Do you think your experience at Deloitte applies to other types of companies beyond professional services consulting?

SN: Yes. In fact, as part of Deloitte Catalyst, where we work with startups, we educate them on creating a customer experience in a similar way. We make sure these young companies aren’t thinking only about their technology when they pitch but are focused on how their product meets the end customer’s needs.

Deloitte Greenhouse workshop

JL: Everyone acknowledges that culture is essential these days, but it often feels less urgent than customer experience because CX seems closer to the dollars. My hunch is we need to make it more apparent that culture improves the customer experience. How do you know when the effects of culture change start to emerge?

SN: The first significant shift was when our leaders realized that being good at engaging, selling, and understanding your client relationships is a skill that can be trained and not one that someone either does or does not have. If you become much more conscious of your interactions with your clients, particularly in moments they will remember for years, it brings the unconscious to the conscious, and this is something that can be learned and embedded in everything we do.

JL: I’m often asked if culture change needs to start from the bottom or the top of the organization. Why did you begin your initiative from the top?

SN: We started with leaders because we knew we needed a critical mass of executives to truly believe in this change. It was only then that we went companywide. This transition took two to three years to trickle down, but after five or six years in total, it was ubiquitous; it became an essential part of how we work internally and with our clients.

JL: To become a customer-centric organization, do you need to shift the whole culture? Couldn’t a leader say, “Here’s a process to follow”?

SN: If culture is a set of values, beliefs, behaviors, then to deliver a rich customer experience, you have to embody those attributes authentically. If they are not internalized, they will seem disingenuous. So, if you say, “We have to be transparent with the customer, and we have to be the first point of resolution, and we have to empower our people,” but don’t share those values and have the internal mechanisms to support these behaviors, it becomes apparent to everyone.

JL: I believe culture is a powerful force because it ensures behaviors stick in companies.

SN: That’s particularly true at the startup stage. When you’re a ten-person team and internalize those values, it changes whom you hire, it changes whom you promote, and it becomes part of the organization’s infrastructure. You can accelerate what is typically a multiyear journey at a giant fortune 200 company into something much faster.

JL: So, what advice would you give to a business unit leader that wants to develop a more customer-centric culture? If they have a medium-sized organization, how do they go about it? What’s the first step?

SN: It’s not hard, actually. First, think about the times you and your team really impressed a customer away or did something amazing. Write down all those times. Then, think about the times where you totally screwed up and list those out. Identifying these stories will help you find patterns. This will give you the “do’s” and the “don’ts.” Then, find a way to elevate the “do’s” and mitigate or get rid of the “don’ts.” Finally, create principles and incentives to bring these to life, which allows them to propagate.

JL: Improving customer experience through culture change seems to boil down to being cognizant of the outcomes you want for your business, what that means for the people inside, and what decisions need to be made to get there. Thanks again, Sonal. I appreciate your time.

SN: Thanks, Josh. It was fun.

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