Building a Customer-centered Culture

What does executive coaching have to do with a company’s focus on delivering on its promise to customers? The answer is simple, but it’s one many executives don’t know — everything.

While many companies pay lip service to an extreme focus on the customer experience, upon closer inspection it becomes evident that customer care is often not a top priority among the executive team. So what will it take to close the gap between words and action?

Dr. Atul Gawande, an accomplished surgeon, had been in his profession for eight years when he noticed his performance in the operating room had reached a plateau. “I’d like to think it’s a good thing —,” he wrote in an October 2011 article for the New Yorker titled Personal Best. “I’ve arrived at my professional peak.” This top achiever, however, was never going to be satisfied with a flat line in his progress. So he did a thing that’s common in the area of sports performance, but not in medicine — he hired a coach. He remembered from his days as a serious high school tennis player going to a tournament where he played against even more advanced players. “The kids at that level were playing a different game than I was,” he said. That’s the thing about high achievers. They’re playing a different game altogether. That’s because they’re never satisfied with a plateau — and they understand the value of coaching.

What is the value of an executive coach?

An outside executive coach can bring new ideas and innovations while also challenging your team’s strategy against the best of the best. The coach will also serve as a sounding board in powerful and confidential CEO-type private discussions. Even if your team is really engaged and fully focused on customer care, executive coaching represents your best chance for future and enhanced success.

The subtitle of Dr. Gawande’s article is Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you? Most Fortune 1000 companies think they do. In fact, IBM retains more than 60 certified coaches on staff. They understand an organization will never outperform its leadership talent. That’s why in a recent survey by Right Management, 86 percent of companies said they use coaching to sharpen the leadership skills of individuals who have been identified as future leaders.

Executive coaching is a partnership that helps senior leaders deliver on key organizational priorities faster and more effectively. Most, if not all, executive teams spend a great deal of time focused on cash flow trends and new revenues. Imagine the power of an executive coach who could help the vice president of marketing and sales strategically dominate the industry by focusing on retaining the existing customer base. In a national study recently completed by Premier Development Solutions and Naviga Business Services, only 55.7 percent of the 33,000 executives surveyed cited their company’s ability to differentiate itself in the market as the way to create loyal raving fans. How many companies can you rave about? Of all the places you visit, how many deliver service that’s over-the top outstanding? Chances are, there aren’t too many. Maybe they have your business simply because there’s no good alternative.

Most executives believe they have a strategic plan for customer care, but in fact do not. Conduct an informal self-audit: what percentage of this year’s budget is targeted on your customer care strategy? You might want to be sitting down while you perform this small exercise, because the truth can be shocking. But with today’s internal politics, who has the moxie to step up and challenge the executive team?

The issue is that many executives suffer from limited or filtered feedback, and the higher they promote, the less frequent and accurate data they receive. A 2009 Harvard Business Review article found that 26 percent of executives surveyed hire coaches primarily as a sounding board. Outside objectivity and past executive-level experience are critically important to any senior leader who spends a significant amount of his or her day attempting to influence others, achieve budget goals and affect organizational change.

In early 2012 the nation’s largest study of executive coaches revealed that “the majority of coaching is designed for leadership development,” and it achieves it in these five primary ways:

  • Allows a leader to reflect on and learn from decisions
  • Exposes a leadership behavior that may be limiting effectiveness
  • Leads personal career development
  • Strategically leads organizational change
  • Provides a sounding board

When confidentiality and performance improvement are critical, internal mentoring can only go so far. And having a strategic advisor can pay for itself many times over, since the impact of one strategic decision may reap millions of dollars in value during the next one to three years. Additionally, having a coach for each key executive will help make every employee’s work unit a great place to work.

Bringing an executive coach on board

Obviously, the fit between an executive and a coach is invaluable to establishing the trust essential for achieving optimal performance. Among the helpful traits of an executive coach are years of senior level-experience of their own, candor, and excellent interpersonal skills. Experience is critically important when selecting a team of outside experts to coach key members of your leadership team.

The majority of coaching is done on the phone, in person or by use of webcam. More than 90 percent of all executive coaching relationships start with one or two assessments that reveal the leader’s strengths and developmental needs. Think of it as a powerful diagnostic tool, a kind of leadership MRI, if you will. Great assessments, in combination with excellent interpretation skills, enable executive coaches to know the leader from the inside out.

In the past 10 years, a team approach has arrived on the scene, adding a new dimension in executive coaching. The concept is similar to that of individual coaching, but caters to the many egos, strengths and styles present in a department or group. Often, differing communication styles could represent one possible dynamic that prevents organizational alignment and success within a team.

Whatever the details of the arrangement, it is critical that parameters be set up front about who is going to receive what feedback. A high level of trust is not negotiable. Any CEO must know anything he or she shares with the coach will not be shared with anyone. Executive coaching is about helping the executive with all the issues already on his or her plate, and any in the future — it’s not about adding to those responsibilities. In fact, delegation is often a stumbling block to leaders. Therefore, conversations about the talents and skill levels of direct reports are common during the coaching process so the executive can delegate more effectively — another reason confidentiality is a top priority.

In the 2012 national study done by Premier Development Solutions and Naviga Business Services, 39.8 percent of executives surveyed gave themselves a failing grade in their planned approach to developing their leaders. To make matters worse nearly 40 percent of executives said less than half of their organization executes its plan of top priorities consistently. The right coach can absolutely help leaders execute at a higher level. More than 60 percent of executives that completed the national study scored the value of executive coaching as “very high.” Before making a decision so valuable to your career success, look for a coaching firm that offers experience, a coaching system, past referrals, a track record of executive success, experience in developing talent and a great fit for your personality. As Dr. Gawande wrote in his article, “Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.”

In his book, First Break all The Rules, Marcus Buckingham presents his research, which proved that organizations with the highest levels of engagement were more likely to have 56 percent higher customer loyalty. But before even picking up the phone to contact an executive coach, make sure you take a hard look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Am I coachable?” Do you know how to systematically create a culture obsessed with customer care, or could you use a little help? Are you consistently measuring engagement in your company? Do you understand how to strategically measure your “customer experience?”

At the end of the day, customer care is a leadership decision. If your dollars are going to billboards and advertising, why isn’t it within your budget to develop a workforce of raving fans to do your advertising for you? A coach with a proven track record can help transform cultures one executive at a time.

— John Lankford is a Master Business Advisor and the founder of Premier Development Solutions. He is a highly sought after keynote speaker, author and former syndicated business columnist whose business expertise has been tapped by the New York Times and CBS. Lankford can be reached at

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