HR & Management

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The job my staff do is more important than mine as CEO

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Over this last month I’ve been putting the wheels in motion for one of my company’s biggest projects to date. Trouble is, as CEO, it’s also one of the least tangible – unlike launching a new product or building a new team.

We’ve always been a company focused on culture – and indeed, a customer-led one. But recently, we’ve been taking that to another level – creating a company culture in which every single employee recognises the value of what they do, and the importance of always putting the customer first.

This is not just a call centre. What they do matters, and their job is more important than mine as CEO because they speak to hundreds of customers, every day. I want those inevitably scripted-sounding conversations to be real and personable – for both employee and customer.

But making this happen in a pragmatic way is a challenge, and here’s a perfect example – my frontline broadband service team. What they do is vital, and they’re exceptionally good at handling customers that are typically frustrated and sometimes downright furious, despite the fact the problems are typically due to network faults we have no control over. That’s just the nature of the job. So how, with the sound of angry customers ringing in their ears, do you keep staff believing in the company’s mission?

Deep diving into our customer personas

Understanding the value of what we do at XLN comes down to understanding the lives of our customers – and therefore, how we make their lives easier. So over the last month we’ve been pushing our understanding of customers further.

Our “personas” project has comprised a huge customer survey that has yielded more than 2,000 responses so far, and a series of in-depth videos with customers across each of our key industry segments (restaurants, hairdressers etc.). Combined, this research will inform everything we do.

We’re already working on turning the insights from our survey into a training deck and collateral for every customer-facing employee. This material will then paint a picture of what a day in the life looks like for an XLN mechanic, retailer or farmer. And vitally, it won’t paint it in generic terms – it will use precisely what our own customers have told us.

For example, one of our newsagents pointed out just how small the margins are in its business. Success and failure hinges on the smallest things, and profits are low. Long hours, a lack of free time and the constant stress and pressure of supermarket chains undercutting prices mean that what we do makes a material difference – it has told us that. If we can save the company £20 a month, that matters. If we can answer a call quickly and solve its problems on the first call, that makes a difference. If we can give it free public WiFi for customers to use, that helps too.

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Bringing our culture to life in my CEO update

Then, at my recent CEO update, I started to bring our persona-driven, customer-first culture to life.

As we have two offices, London and Sheffield, this meant two separate presentations over two nights. It’s essential that, on both nights, the company vision comes to life in a believable and meaningful way. We all know how short people’s attention spans are these days.

So I focused on our customers – their stories, their pain-points, and our roles within that. I presented these with as much personality as possible, which I believe is essential for these kinds of events. Nothing loses attention quicker than stats, corporate jargon and vague brand rhetoric. From my experience, passion and personality trumps rhetoric and jargon every time.

I’m extremely passionate about what I do, so this comes naturally. At the CEO update, I talked about how every day for a small business isn’t just good or bad – it’s life or death. Services going down means losing sales, and if the problems aren’t solved quickly, it’s not long before those lost sales start to threaten a small company’s survival. And when a business fails, a mortgage goes unpaid and a family’s hopes are in tatters. It sounds hyperbolic, but it isn’t – I’ve seen it, first-hand. That, as I told my employees, is why it matters that we have a higher rate of solving problems on the first call than our competitors. That’s why my service teams should care about what they do, and be proud of it. They save businesses, so they save lives.

For me, that’s what CEO updates and conferences are all about. My employees know the jargon, they know the brand rhetoric, and they know the terms and conditions. What they sometimes forget are the real-life stories behind it all.

There’s a long way to go to connect all of the dots in our far-reaching customer-first project, but looking back over the last month, I’d say we’ve made a good start. But on a practical level, I’m still learning just how much work there is in re-shaping company culture.

This article is part of a wider campaign called Founders Diaries, a section of Real Business that brings together 20 inspiring business builders to share their stories. Bringing together companies from a wide variety of sectors and geographies, each columnist produces a diary entry each month. Visit the Founders Diaries section to find out more.

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