Are You Humble Enough To Be A Customer Centric CEO?

If you’ve answered the question above with, “Absolutely yes, I am a very humble leader,” you probably are not.

If you are a CEO and have experienced a great deal of success throughout your lifetime, you do begin to feel that you are perfect in every way, and therefore it’s hard to be humble — very hard. The ego expands to such a huge size that it becomes the sole explanation as to why the company has been so successful.

But don’t get me wrong: humility should not be a substitute for confidence. In fact, perhaps the two greatest assets a customer centric leader can have are to be both confident and humble. So, while the answer “Absolutely yes, I am a very humble leader” displays an immense amount of confidence, a quietly humble person would have more likely answered, “I believe I am, but it is best that you ask those who work for me”.

This same person would have been confident in his own humility, but open and interested in the responses from those who work for him, be willing to accept the criticism, and even possibly change. He also would have known that the most accurate and truthful answers would not come from him but from those who work with him.

But why is humility so important to lead a successful customer centric transformation?

In a global marketplace where problems are increasingly complex, no one person will ever have all the answers. That’s why Google’s SVP of People Operations, Lazlo Bock, says humility is one of the traits he’s looking for in new hires: “And it is not just humility in creating space for others to contribute, it’s intellectual humility. Without humility, you are unable to learn. Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure,” said Bock.

A true customer centric transformation requires an immense desire to change the foundations and principles upon which the organization is based.

Dozens of researches have shown that employees who perceived altruistic behavior from their leaders, become more innovative, suggesting new ideas and ways of doing work better. Moreover, they were more likely to report engaging in team behaviour, going beyond the call of duty, picking up the slack for an absent colleague. All these behaviours are pre-requisites to deliver extraordinary customer experience.

“Yes,” you say, “but in business, we have to be pragmatic. We have to focus on things that can actually be accomplished”. Fair enough, but often, we are blindly pragmatic. We are so conservative, so utilitarian, so process-focused, so data-driven, so obsessed with meager efficiencies, that we can scarcely dream of doing something “insanely great”- to borrow one of Steve Jobs’ favorite phrases.

If you listen to the speech of a typical CEO, or scroll through an employee-oriented website, and notice the words that keep cropping up — words like leadership, solution, advantage, focus, momentum, differentiation and superiority. There’s nothing wrong with these words, but they’re not the ones that inspire human hearts. And that’s a problem — because if a CEO wants to inspire his people in delivering an extraordinary customer experience, he needs to inspire them, and they will inspire customers who then will become fan of the company.

And now, let’s see some concrete suggestions to start acting like a humble leader.

  • Start “wasting part of your precious time” in dialogue with customers and frontline people…

Too often leaders are focused only in providing “winning” arguments during — so called — important meetings. In these meetings, normally, nobody can answer back. When humans debate in this way, they become so focused on proving the validity of their own views that they miss out on the opportunity to learn about other points of view. Humble — and customer centric — leaders at the opposite, are willing to listen “normal” customers who have had a bad experience with their company.

I often ask senior leaders a simple question: “Do you think it’s important to talk with your customers? Not surprisingly, the answers are almost always “Yes, tremendously important”. Next I ask, “How many times you met a low value customer who had a poor experience in the last 3 weeks?”. An uncomfortable silence typically enters in the room.

A humble — and customer centric — leader is willing to “waste his precious time” to have a direct feedback from a low value customer who has had a poor experience. I said a low value customer not a millionaire one.

A humble — and customer centric — leader is also willing to talk regularly with frontline people who normally are able to provide the real reasons of the poor experience. That’s the only way to ask them to go the extramile to deliver unforgettable moments to customers.

  • …show personal involvement in solving customer’s issues…

When humble — and customer centric — leaders have learnt the company has failed in delivering an extraordinary customer experience to a single customer, they are willing to establish a sincere emotional connection with that customer. They are willing to apologize on behalf of the company and then they act personally to fix the problem.

Showcasing their own personal involvement in solving a single customer issue, they give a stellar model of the centricity of a customer — even a low value one — to frontline people.

  • …and only then, challenge AND help your people in showing love for customers

Leaders who have shown to be willing to “waste their personal time in solving customer’s issues”, can challenge their people asking them to show love for customers. They can’t do it before.

But these leaders do not have only to challenge their people, they have to show their personal commitment in helping frontline people to learn how to deliver stellar customer experience. And they have to help them every day.

An extraordinay example of an organization where the CEO has proved the enormous power to be humble is Lakeland Health — as reported by Gary Hamel. With about 4,000 associates, the Lakeland generates nearly $500 million per year in revenue. Its facilities are spread across the southwest corner of Michigan — an economically disadvantaged part of the US. Median income is 70% of the national average and the incidence of chronic diseases is substantially higher than the norm — a challenging environment in which to be a healthcare provider. Loren Hamel — Lakeland’s CEO — was distressed to learn that when it came to patient satisfaction, Lakeland was a laggard — with scores between the 25th and 50th percentile. How, the CEO wondered, could Lakeland reinvent the experience of healthcare for its patients? What would happen, he wondered, if Lakeland’s associates brought their hearts to work, as well as their professional skills?

The CEO didn’t offer his associates a script or a training program. Instead, he challenged them: “Every time you interact with a patient, tell them who you are, what you’re there to do, and then share a heartfelt why. For example, I’m Tom, I’m here change your dressings, “cause we want you home in time to be at your granddaughter’s wedding.”

Over the next 90 days, the CEO “rounded” 120 times. He showed up in every department, on every shift, in every facility. “How’s it going?”, he’d ask. “Have you made any heartfelt connections? If so, tell me about it. If not, let’s role play right now. Let me be the patient.”

Before long, Lakeland was reverberating with stories about heartfelt connections. Over the course of a few months, more than 6,000 stories were celebrated across Lakeland, and more than 6,000 hearts were affixed to employee IDs. One of the stories reported by the CEO is the following.

There was a wicked commotion in the hall, and two security officers suddenly found themselves facing a husband in complete emotional melt down. He had come in with his wife who was desperately ill. After the medical work-up, he was told that his wife was dying of cancer and probably won’t leave the hospital alive. The news struck like a thunderbolt, and he simply lost it. Having been called to the scene, the security guards were ready to phone the police when an associate nurse comes around the corner. Seeing the distraught husband lashing out at everyone around him, she walked up to him and calmly asked, “Can I hug you?” When the man nodded yes, she wrapped her arms around him and for the next 20 minutes she held him as he wept into her uniform. Finally calm, he returned to support his wife and the nurse went on with her duties. She was an LPN, who had never been through any course on conflict management, or de-escalation, but she had heard lots of stories about how to connect with another human being.

By the way, the result in terms of traditional metric was obviously extraordinary as well: within 90 days they were at the 95th percentile of patient satisfaction in three hospitals, for the first time ever.