Once you get a taste of what it's like to truly delight your customers, it's hard to settle for anything less. In retrospect, whatever you did to delight them can seem obvious, and you wonder how you didn't see it sooner.

For the converted, the voice of the customer becomes a trusted north star, a constant reminder of the importance of empathy and humility in guiding the work we do. Once we start to measure our work by its contribution to human experiences, we begin to better understand its importance and the ways in which we create value. We start to understand purpose, mission, and return on investment differently. Conventional measures of impact – cost, compliance, revenue, risk, or safety – continue to be important, but we inspire deeper team engagement and creativity when we translate them into specific experiences.

For the converted, the biggest mystery is understanding why these driving principles aren't obvious to everyone in their organization. Depending on an organization's stage in its transformation to a customer-focused culture, customer advocates are often met with skepticism, dismissed as being unrealistic, or, ironically, as having too narrow a focus, not seeing the bigger picture.

As awareness of the importance of customer experience grows in an organization, whether as a result of competitive pressures or executive commitment, skepticism can give way to fear and anxiety. What does it mean to be customer focused? Aren't we doing everything we should be already? Do I have the skills I need to contribute effectively in a customer-focused organization, or will my role be marginalized somehow? Will I lose influence or credibility? Couldn't we be led astray by listening to our customers? How can we balance customer insight with other factors, like feasibility and cost, to inform the decisions we make?

A recent Stanford study examined the powerful influence that uncertainty has over our actions. Jeffrey Pfeffer suggests that it takes a lot of mental effort to anticipate all the possible outcomes of a given situation, assess the odds of each happening, and prepare for those possibilities – so much effort that people tend to opt for the most certain choice, even if the outcome is more likely to be bad. A new change or a call for innovative ideas come with a load of uncertainty, so maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most of us are wired to avoid them.

It turns out that building a customer-focused organization is anything but obvious. Personas, user scenarios, experience measures, qualitative research, and satisfaction surveys are all important investments, but the real magic happens when an organization uses them to affect its culture, to inform the conversations, decisions, and optimizations it makes every day, at every level, when it becomes the lens through which it views success.

As a strategic design consultancy, Navicet has spent a lot of time puzzling over the best way for organizations to improve their performance through design and measurement practices – a cool magic trick, when you can make it work. Our mission is to build design-led organizations – that is, organizations that:

  • Build empathy for their customers' experience
  • Take the time to generate possibilities
  • Perform small experiments early
  • Measure and learn from the results

In a nutshell, design-led organizations use mature measurement practices to align a diverse population of employees behind a common set of goals. They use design practices to improve performance and create value. They cultivate a design-thinking mindset to promote invention, learning, and the idea that all value is created by improving or preserving someone's experience. They frame their mission in terms of human experience and use design as the engine to achieve it.

Becoming a design-led company is challenging for organizations of any size and industry. We’ve worked with global commercial enterprises like Microsoft, Starbucks, and T-Mobile, local government agencies and non-profits, such as Goodwill, Seattle Housing Authority, and The Prosperity Agenda, and a variety of smaller startups and mid-sized consulting companies. Over the years, we’ve learned a few things that seem to work well in any context. Here’s how we approach the problem.

Start Small and Build on Success

When considering a major investment in a new way of doing things (think Agile, DevOps, Lean, Six Sigma, etc.) it can be tempting to aim the change towards the largest, most important projects or teams in the hopes of getting the biggest payback. Unfortunately, this approach lowers the odds of meaningful change. High-profile projects where “failure is not an option” don’t lend themselves to experiments with uncertain outcomes, and they are, nevertheless, frequent targets for new initiatives. Instead, consider starting with low-visibility, low-risk projects.

Look for teams already inclined towards the change, offer them some training and coaching, and then get out of their way. The risk is lower and by starting small, you have a chance to make improvements before you move on to the next project team. Use early success as a springboard for other teams.

Develop a Concrete Vision and Plan for Developing a Culture of Customer Experience

Deciding that customer experience is important is a powerful first step. Signaling it clearly to the entire organization and following up with specific, visible actions helps focus our attention and builds confidence. These concrete actions might consist of training, defining new roles, new reporting structures, investing in coaching, or changing the way investments are prioritized. The Prosperity Agenda, for example, pulled all of these levers to change the way they fund projects, evaluate their success, and articulate their strategic goals. They’ve formed new relationships with funding partners that would have been difficult to imagine three years ago.

Align Operational Performance Measures with Customer Experience Measures

There is no better way to align a diverse group behind a common purpose than helping them come to a common set of success measures. We often facilitate leadership workshops to uncover a model of measures and the relationships among them, define supporting business capabilities and processes, build personas, sketch future-state user scenarios, and develop action plans for driving execution. Each link in the chain between strategy and execution gets its own measure of success.

Use Customer Personas and Other Tools to Bring the Voice of the Customer into Organizational Planning and Daily Work

Seeing products and services through someone else’s eyes requires overcoming our own biases and experience, a difficult task for even highly skilled design practitioners. Personas are one tool that can help set the stage for greater empathy, insight, and inspiration. Prioritizing stories or features becomes a lot easier when we ask, “How will this contribute to Ellen’s experience?”

Use Customer and Staff Feedback Effectively

We often hear the opinion that experience is difficult to measure and subjective, and therefore unimportant, unreliable or unactionable. We couldn't disagree more. Even a small investment in qualitative in-depth studies can inform larger-scale quantitative instruments that can reliably measure sentiment. A good approach should allow customers to use their own voice and still provide comparable quantitative data that can be used for diagnostic purposes.

Generate and Maintain Staff Excitement, Engagement, and Commitment to the Customer Experience, at All Levels of the Organization

Staff commitment starts with leadership commitment. It’s hard to expect an organization to build a culture of commitment to customers, learning, and innovation if executives and managers don’t demonstrate that they value those things above predictability, cost, and control.

It doesn’t take long for that leadership commitment to show a return. On average, the teams we work with report a doubling of stakeholder confidence, employee and team engagement, and ability to collaborate. Encourage the use of community, recognition, training, coaching, and clear messaging from leadership as catalysts of cultural change.

Building a design-led culture can seem like an impossible challenge at the outset. Conventional tactics, like checklists, process stage gates, or quality reviews can prove ineffective and may sometimes even work against the change you’re hoping to introduce. The good news is that once teams turn the corner and start finding some success, they often find themselves wondering what all the fuss was to begin with.

If you’re wondering where to start, pick a team that is already inclined to change the way they work, a team that is inspired by what’s possible. Alternatively, pick a small project scope to start practicing this new way of working. Once a team has some personal experience and success to show that it’s possible to the rest of the organization, the rest of it becomes easier.

In the end, becoming customer-experience-driven is a goal for the most competitive companies. Becoming design-led is a powerful strategy for getting there.