Consider Zappos, which is well known for its dedication to top-notch customer service — no call-center scripts, no time limits on customer calls, and, above all, a goal to “wow” customers at all times. That philosophy is behind everything the company does; it underlies the firm’s management approach, and it drives the Zappos employee experience.
And Zappos isn’t alone. “Every company that’s crushing it right now is oriented around the customer,” said Chris Smith, managing principal of Grant Thornton’s Strategy & Transformation practice. “So the culture, the employees and everything they do are an extension of the customer experience they want to provide.”
While this alignment may seem intuitive, not many firms put it into practice. For instance, in Grant Thornton’s recent Return on Culture survey, 75% of executives assert that their organization has defined values that are communicated and understood — a statistic that only 33% of their employees agree with. “If you’re messaging one way to the external marketplace, why wouldn’t you message similarly to your internal marketplace?” said Erica O’Malley, organizational strategy leader in Strategy & Transformation. “When simplifying your messaging from the top, employees can then relate to the experience customers are supposed to have.”
For companies that are misaligned, the danger can be substantial, resulting in dissatisfied customers, unhappy employees and other harbingers of trouble. Fortunately, there are signs to watch out for — and steps you can take to get back on track.
What type of company are you?
When it comes to alignment between brand and culture, Smith said companies typically fall into one of three groups. In the first group, largely made up of legacy firms, companies hang onto the idea that culture is solely about the employee experience. They also tend to lack focus on how customers interact with, are served by and, ultimately, experience their company. In Smith’s view, the clock is ticking for companies in this category, as they’re outpaced by those in the second group — companies that have focused on the customer experience from the very beginning and strived to ensure that their internal culture aligns with the experience they want customers to have. “When you do that, it’s almost impossible for employees not to be integrated into the customer experience,” he said.
That’s what Zappos has done since the beginning. For instance, customer-service representatives keep a stack of postcards on their desks so they can drop a line to callers now and then. Say you mention that you really need well-fitting hiking boots for an upcoming visit to the Grand Canyon; you might receive a handwritten card wishing you a safe trip a few days later.
As for the third group of companies that Smith describes, these organizations want to be customer-focused, but they act like legacy firms in their belief that culture is solely an internal issue. The result is a gulf between their intentions and their actions. “That disconnect creates a lot of dysfunction for both employees and customers,” Smith said. “And that results in lower sales, lower profitability and lower retention rates.”
Authenticity is king
Culture must always be rooted in a company’s brand, said Todd Shimizu, managing director in Strategy & Transformation. Such authenticity means companies whose brands are very different will have very different cultures. For instance, a financial services firm that emphasizes safety and protection should have a culture quite distinct from a sneaker brand that’s all about edgy street style and attitude. “This approach is rooted in the fundamental question of why a company exists,” Shimizu said. “If you can get to that idea, you can rally both the external brand and the internal brand around something that feels authentic to people.”
Shimizu pointed to a few indicators that signal a misalignment between a company’s culture and its brand. (See “3 steps to aligning your company’s culture,” below.) For instance, a disjointed customer experience — perhaps evidenced by poor feedback in stores or online — may mean that employees don’t have the resources they need to meet customers’ expectations.
Likewise, the emergence of rogue brands inside a company — employee-generated slogans or taglines, for example — can be a red flag. “It’s a clear indicator that people aren’t buying into the overall brand and that they think they’ve got a better story to tell,” Shimizu said.
If you really want to know whether brand and culture lack alignment, consider surveying vendors and partners about what it’s like to interact with your company. Negative feedback from these channels indicates some missing links — and often provides meaningful insights you won’t get anywhere else.