10 Tips for Building a Customer Obsessed Organization

Posted on October 9, 2023.

Last week I wrote a list of 10 challenges to building a customer obsessed organization. It was hard getting the list to only 10 items so I added 2 “bonus” items. However, being the kind of person who doesn’t like to complain without offering up ways to improve things, I decided to write this week’s post offering up, at least, one tip for overcoming each of those challenges. These aren’t silver bullets nor is this the only way to improve things but if you’re facing some of these challenges (and I know you are) these tips will help you get started making the right changes. Let’s dive in. 

De-couple delivery from performance management criteria 

Last week I said that your teams will optimize for what gets them paid, promoted and celebrated. Since most companies value delivery above all else, teams will optimize to deliver code regardless of its value to the customer. This is a tough one to solve as it requires C-level directive and support. Job descriptions have to be re-written and career progressions need to be rethought. This is a lot of work that affects everyone at the organization. However, if you we can start to get companies valuing meaningful, positive changes in customer behavior over “shipping stuff” we can turn the corner towards a customer obsessed organization.    

Make learning the path of least resistance

If learning and discovery activities are deprioritized enough they cease to be discussed. If we want to build learning into our ways of working so we can understand our customers better, the learning work itself needs to be the path of least resistance. Need budget for customer interviews? No problem. Want to speak to a specific customer? Here’s the best person to introduce you. Need to learn how to best design a solution? Let’s subscribe to an a/b testing platform. Again, this is a leadership tip. If you’re not a leader, one thing you can start doing is at the beginning of each sprint planning session ask, “What did we learn last sprint and what are we going to do with that information in this sprint?”  

Redefine what a “team” is 

Particularly with medium sized and enterprise organizations the definition of “team” ends up siloed in various ways. It might be front end vs back end teams. Or it may be product and design on one side with engineering on another. In all these cases the shared understanding needed to align towards customer needs is lost. Consider redefining what a team is in your organization. What’s the smallest vertical slice of folks you could put together to make a self-sufficient team? One way to prove out this model is to run an experiment. Put together one, just one, cross-functional, self-sufficient team. Let that team work for a quarter and see how they do, what they learn and how they perform. Use those learnings to expand to a 2nd, 3rd and 10th team.  

Diversify the purpose of in-house research teams 

A few weeks ago I discussed the question, “Who owns product discovery?” In there I linked to a great talk from Jen Cardello who runs research at Fidelity. She shared many tips on how to broaden the impact a research team has on an organization. The most salient point for using your research team more effectively was to define research at various “flight levels” allowing the research team to take on some of the harder research work while training the product teams to take on the more tactical discovery work. 

Admit when you’ve been wrong – at every level of the organization

Humility drives learning. Learning drives deeper customer empathy which, in turn, drives more successful products and customers. Most folks misunderstand humility as a lack of conviction or direction. Instead, it’s most basic manifestation is the simple act of admitting you were wrong. If you find yourself in a situation where you learn you were wrong about something at work, admit it. Explain to your colleagues or staff why you thought you were right, what you’ve learned about it and what you think you should do next. The basic act of modeling this behavior builds a culture that’s not afraid to try new things and change course. 

Give teams some room to run, reflect and repeat

McGregor’s management theory of Theory X management vs Theory Y management and companies’ over-indexing on Theory X style management is at the root of many business’ lack of customer focus. Theory X leaders prescribe and direct. They don’t trust. Instead, give your teams some room to run (Theory Y). It doesn’t have to be for a year. Let them make their own decisions for a month. Then pause to reflect with them. What worked well? What was hard? How do we make the next month even more effective? At the same time, as a leader, you are also reflecting on how your management style needs to change to support autonomous teams.  

Process is for everyone, not just product teams

Despite a proliferation of methods and ways of working, most companies still don’t use them to become more customer focused. If you’re going to introduce a new way of working to your teams, you are introducing it to yourself as well. If everyone is on the same page with Agile, Design Thinking, OKRs, Lean UX, etc then the organization stands a chance of transforming towards a greater customer focus. This means that leaders need to better understand what it means to lead Agile teams (as an example). Otherwise, it’s all theater.  

Shorter planning cycles

The world moves faster than 1 year cycles. Customer behavior changes monthly. New interaction paradigms rise up regularly. If we want to be able to serve our customers in a timely fashion we have to shorten our planning cycles. How short? Cut your current cycle in half. That will get you evaluating your efforts twice as much as you’re currently doing. Then cut it in half again. Your planning cycles should be as short as possible and no shorter. This will depend on your company’s context, industry, size and other factors but the goal is to check in and adjust the plan more frequently.  

Provide feedback forums

Your staff will hesitate to provide feedback that contradicts the plan in an ad hoc fashion, especially if it’s not common in your company. Simply saying “it’s ok to speak up” is a good start but rarely enough. Instead, create specific, deliberate safe spaces for folks to provide feedback on the work, the plan, the progress and the insight they’ve collected over the past weeks. If these specific forums work, the conversation will spill over into day to day routines. At first though, we have to create both the psychological and physical space for them to happen deliberately.  

Make “business model” part of the onboarding process

Most organizations have a formal onboarding process. Defining and explaining the company’s business model is rarely part of this. Consider adding in a training module as part of the onboarding process that discusses in detail how the company makes money and how the customer figures into it. Ensure this is understood from day one and take every opportunity in front of your team to reiterate the business model.  

That’s at least one tip for each of the original 10 challenges. Here are two more bonus tips. 

Bonus 1: Create a formal customer outreach process

You can’t be customer obsessed and not allow your teams to have customer contact. If this is tricky (e.g., B2B with few customers) create a formal customer outreach process. Ensure that it’s efficient and consistent and that everyone knows how it works. This way teams can plan to get their questions answered by using the process that’s in place for that specific purpose. 

Teach your teams how to do product discovery

I teach product discovery to teams. Sometimes I come across teams who know what discovery is and maybe have some practice with it but it’s rarely a mature practice that is used regularly. Ensure everyone knows how to do some product discovery and make it clear that it’s expected to be part of the way we work. Without this your teams will just guess what the customer wants. 

These tips are mainly leadership tips. There are things teams can do at their level but realistically, for this to become a standard part of the culture, there needs to be executive initiative. It can’t just be a claim to be “customer obsessed” but actual steps forward to making it so. These 12 tips can at least get the conversation started.