A Culture Play

August 19, 2019

Louis Carter is the author of In Great Company. He was named one of global gurus’ top 10 organizational culture gurus in the world.

Leaders should understand the connection between organizational change and customer experience, which can be established if an enriching culture is fostered for employees to perform at their best.

When I founded The Best Practice Institute, I launched it with Fortune 500 C-level executives, such as Kathleen Dannemiller, Marshall Goldsmith, Richard Beckhard, Warren Bennis, W Warner Burke, Frances Hesselbein, and Sally Helgesen, who are not only outstanding leaders but also frontrunners in change management. We all knew we wanted to create a think tank and solutions incubator that encompassed a whole community of thought leaders. We wanted to use our change management and talent management methods to help organizations and CEOs implement effective change and leadership development initiatives that had lasting impacts in every realm, from employee performance to customer relations.

Where everyone wins


Essentially, my vision was creating a world of work where everyone wins. That is part of our stated mission—to transform ourselves and our organizations by implementing the best and next practices in organization development and change. Given that customer relations are critical for nearly every company, I also wanted to see how outstanding customer relations could be connected right back to a highly-evolved and successful organization, and how founders of top organizations have positioned themselves to succeed where competitors fall by the wayside.

What I found was that these founders innately understand the connection between organizational change and customer experience. In a series of interviews with some of today’s most accomplished founder-CEOs, I found that the ones who are truly changing the concept of customer excellence for the future first look within—at their employees. These leaders are all adept at customer relations, however. They are meeting the expectations of the new generations, who react far more quickly to how they are treated. The quicksilver pace of consumer reactions to information in today’s digitally-driven environment means that one wrong move creates a ‘paper cut’ that can forever remind a customer not of your strengths but of your mistakes. But these founders know that the way to avoid the paper cut syndrome starts with the environment and culture that leaders create for their employees.

Customer success is not just about the customer. It starts within the organization itself, and with creating a culture in which extraneous competing interests are eliminated.

Customer success starts within the organization

Each of these leaders has a winning approach to strategic customer relations. They have their own perspective. But all share that one foundational concept—that customer success is not just about the customer. It starts within the organization itself, and with creating a culture in which extraneous competing interests are eliminated, and people are empowered to focus on the customers and critical goals.

Here is what I found out from these leaders about what enables their long-standing businesses to stay out front in their markets:

Culture begins at the top

Big River Steels sees itself as a tech company that happens to make steel, a mindset forged by the founding CEO John Correnti that carries through today with CEO Dave Stickler. According to Mark Bula, former CCO, Big River’s culture begins with people at the top who truly believe in empowering its workforce and thinking beyond the status quo. The company defines itself as ‘reimagining what it means to be a steel company in the global marketplace’.*

Bula believes leaders need to create an environment in which workers feel they can grow as individuals as well. “The way to get people excited about it was to get them to understand, we are going to do something completely different,” he said. The leadership eats with employees, interacts with them daily, and drives the message that they are not making a commodity grade of steel, and their employees are not a commodity grade of the employer either. “You are here because we need people to be rebels because we need people to create a rebel brand.”

Invest in creating a great team

Jerry Colangelo, former owner of the Phoenix Suns is a repeat Sportsman of the Year and influential NBA coach who has done it all. Raised in the humble ‘lunch box community’ of South Chicago, he saw college and pro sports as a place to level the playing field. Unafraid to fail and unintimidated by competitors, he built game strategies on calculated risks. He created the Phoenix Suns as a family-based culture of relationships, trust, and loyalty, and knew that great players would inspire far better loyalty from the fans who are the team’s community.

Following a poor start to an Arizona Diamondbacks’ season, Colangelo quickly improved the team’s talent, a move that showed his respect for the team’s community. He made a series of high-prestige appointments and accountabilities, built cultures where players would cherish the team or country they represented, and repeatedly focused on hiring the right people to make winning teams. Money was never the issue when recruiting, but his players and staff understood he expected their total commitment to teamwork.

Take care of employees and employees will take care of customers

Kingston Technology is the world’s largest independent manufacturer of memory products with 3,000-plus employees worldwide. It has been listed on Fortune’s Best Companies to Work for in America.

Founders John Tu and David Sun built a culture of respect, loyalty, flexibility, and integrity, including a substantial investment in employees: the belief is that if they take care of their people, their people will look after others inside and outside the organization. “The business will follow,” Tu said.

Go beyond what is expected—with ‘fanatical support’

Morris Miller, co-founder of Rackspace and CEO of Xenex Disinfection Systems, builds unorthodox customer-centric organizations. At Rackspace, he recruited people who could deliver fanatical customer support and reconfigured organizational silos to put a member of each functional area on customer serving teams.

In the cases of all the organizations I studied and the leaders I interviewed, the leaders’ commitment to employees—in terms of behavior and investment—is what drove business success.

The result—a more integrated and efficient service that shortened the distance between Rackspace and customers. At Xenex, Miller put machines and employees in locations until they were convinced of the product’s life-saving potential, and could bring the Xenex skillset and expertise into hospitals with hard-to-move professional forces. His problem was to solve their problems— turning Xenex experts into co-workers on location. Despite the growing dominance of technology today, he bets future business success will hinge on who can provide human support.

In the cases of all the organizations I studied and the leaders I interviewed, the leaders’ commitment to employees—in terms of behavior and investment—is what drove business success. The best practices for great customer relations were actually improving the culture of the workplace and drove a level of success that continues to reflect the values of the founders. As these leaders noted, if you help a customer succeed as much as you would for yourself, you will always win. And these founder-inspired customer service strategies will help any business secure customer loyalty, well into the future.