When a successful CEO departs, they often leave behind something that is ingrained in the very fabric of their organisation. In the same way that Steve Jobs left a legacy of design thinking at Apple, Jeff Bezos leaves behind a relentless focus on the customer at Amazon. We know plenty about these two CEOs and their successes. So why do so few other companies do what they did? Especially the seemingly obvious need to focus on customer needs, expectations and service.

What is the true state of customer service?

At a time when there is a heated public debate about whether customer service has improved or declined during the pandemic, executives clearly have a key role to play.

Tech Radar summarised the findings of a study from the Call Centre Management Association. It found that more than half of customers had difficulties with customer service in 2020. The article also highlights how there are huge issues with trust in chatbots among all age groups and this is contributing to poor customer service.

A comment piece in the Telegraph around the same time suggested that businesses were using the pandemic as an easy excuse for delivering poor customer service. And that the general public was willing to accept it. Most executives would want to distance their own companies from such findings or see problems elsewhere as opportunities to make customer service central to their offering.

As Diginomica reports, in some cases customer expectations are actually driving positive change within organisations. It highlights how Zendesk upgraded its messaging function from an optional add-on to a core part of its customer service offering.

Another article in Forbes provides examples of how businesses have actually improved customer service operations – from more personalisation and empathy through to investing in channels. Interestingly, it quotes “Nearly 80% of CEOs surveyed by Accenture said they will fundamentally change how they engage with and create value for customers.”

Figuring out precisely how to do that is something all executives can learn from Jeff Bezos.

Instilling a culture of understanding

An interesting piece by Mark Ritson in Marketing Week gets to the heart of the matter. “For all Amazon’s innovation and invention, it is the world’s most valuable brand principally because its founder Jeff Bezos got to know his customers.”

Bezos’ obsession with customer thinking is what transformed the business – and Bezos himself – from a bookseller in a cramped garage into a ubiquitous name worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Despite being the only person who could answer customer queries in the early days of Amazon, Bezos continued to read what customers sent him via jeff@amazon.com as the business grew. He made senior leaders attend call centre training so they could hear exactly what customers were saying instead of reading lines in a management report. And he would wheel in an empty chair to important meetings to represent “the most important person in the room” – the customer.

Learning from the legacy

Among all of the insights into Jeff Bezos’ approach, the empty chair is perhaps the most pertinent. It represents an awareness of what you – the executive – do not know. Call it customer-centricity, market orientation or relentless customer focus, it is important to recognise that it is a void.

Building a corporate culture that values customer research helps to fill that void. There are three interdependent elements to this:

  • Be inquisitive about your customers
  • Be ready to capture what they think
  • Be open enough to apply the lessons

As the debate about good or bad customer service reveals, some enterprises have this culture of research and understanding and some do not.

One of the key issues is leadership. As people gain seniority within the organisation there is a danger they become disconnected to what is happening on the ground with the customer. Despite general agreement that executives must be aligned to a common customer experience goal (thereby impacting customer service), the reality is that few actually take time to understand what customers need.

A CEO can set the tone for a customer-centric culture. Yet first they and their senior team must go out and discover what this really means.