Don’t Put Your Customers First (And 10 Other Ways To Create A Winning Culture)

Culture is everything when it comes to success in sales.

Attend any marketing or strategy class in any business school in the world and you’ll hear about creating a competitive advantage. In other words, defining something that you or your company does better than anyone else which in turn gives you an edge over the rest.

The next level up form a competitive advantage – the one that we strive for – is a sustainable competitive advantage. In other words, a place where the risks of that ‘edge’ being copied, surpassed or eliminated are remote in the long-run.

Apple has a sustainable competitive advantage because of the way its customers feel about the brand. They’ll pay multiple times more (for what could be seen by some as a commoditised product) because of their relationship with the brand. They’re willing to undergo a new (and often painful) learning curve with a Mac compared to a Windows operated machine; and they’ll tolerate a smaller viewing screen and less powerful camera on an iPhone compared to a Samsung or HTC. Why? Because of how it feels to be part of Apple – the beautiful design, the attention to detail and the hallmark of its founder – design, speed, collaboration and innovation.

Virgin also has a sustainable competitive advantage because of the inherent equity within its brand. It can diversify into new markets – it can succeed and fail in them – but the Virgin brand remains strong. Other pretenders can appear within their markets but none can compete to the same extent. Virgin can launch a cola drink and fail. But rather than laugh and point, the majority attribute it to the dynamic and fun-loving approach of the still-entrepreneurial company founded by the dynamic and fun-loving entrepreneur.

IKEA has a sustainable competitive advantage. Love the experience or hate the experience, no one can argue that their operational processes, their ability to balance volume and variation, and the customer journey are incredible. At IKEA, they pride themselves on development, on doing things better and smarter rather than faster, and about being down to earth. They believe that the team is more important than any one person. And that’s exactly what you get at IKEA: an incredible mix of design, value and exceptional process.

So here’s the interesting thing.

If you’re competitive advantage is a piece of intellectual property then it can be surpassed and probably will be. Sure, it may take time, but if the ‘edge’ is in the widget then it’s only a matter of time before someone somewhere finds a way to do it quicker or better.

However, when the competitive advantage is the culture you create – the culture within your team or your organisation – then that competitive advantage is sustainable. Because the culture transmits to the approach to innovation and product development (Apple), it transmits to the brand and popularity (Virgin), and it transmits to reputation, processes and experience (IKEA).

Culture is what will drive the next round of intellectual property.

That culture – that focus on the people of the organisation – transmits to customers. After all, if the organisation is a great place to work then by default it’s likely to be a great organisation to do business with.

So here are ten ways to create a winning culture.

1.       Don’t Put Your Customers First

Your customers’ aren’t number one – your people are – because if you get it right with your people then you’ll automatically get it right with your customers. Give your people a great experience and they will in turn give your customers a great experience.

Customer experience and sales are two sides of the same coin. Create a poor customer experience and sales will suffer. Conversely, create a great customer experience and sales will respond.

But the key is to put employees first – to ensure they are happy and motivated and fulfilled in their work. Sounds simple but is that what you do? What you really do?

2.       Provide opportunity for growth

This doesn’t just mean vertical development. It can be cross-functional or horizontal development. This not only produces rounded leaders but it also offers aspiration – something for people to strive for.

If open positions are only filled externally, where is the motivation in the long-run for the incumbent employees? For while not everyone want will want to or be able to move roles, the greater the culture of the development then the greater the likelihood of growth.

So encourage development and growth of people in whatever form that takes.

3.       Give people responsibility 

Like the case of the whining dog, people have to take responsibility for changing the status quo – but they have to be given the opportunity to do so, feeling encouraged and supported.

And that will only happen if there’s the environment in which to do so. It’s all well and good to ask people to do so but sometimes they may need to see that it’s the accepted norm.

So make a change, find a way, take it personally, take action and get on with it.

4.       Live your company values

Nothing is worse than seeing someone trot out a set of company values without even the slightest hint that they believe in them, that they’re willing to live by them and act congruently with them.

What brings a set of company values to life is seeing employees at every level of the organisation living them out and being recognised for doing so. Because the values are the life-blood of the company and it’s what drives the culture – as it does at Apple, Virgin and IKEA.

Understand what the company values mean to you. Consider how you live them out and recognise others who do so.

5.       Be opened minded and forget fear

Take a look at this clip from Little Britain.

Ok, so it’s a British TV comedy and an extreme representation of bad customer experience, but the idea is based on an approach which is prevalent in some organisations – which is that the ‘computer says no’.  A poor customer experience driven by employees who aren’t empowered to take ownership and make decisions.

So they don’t think for themselves and default to a place of ‘computer says no’.

But in order to encourage a ‘yes’ mindset or one which produces a great customer experience, two things need to happen. Firstly, failure in the pursuit of trying to do the right thing for the customer should be encouraged. Secondly, failure in the pursuit of trying to do the right thing for the business should be encouraged.

6.       Make it fun

If you make it a great place to work, then the chances are it will be a great place to buy from. Many of us spend more time with the people we work with than family and friends. So it figures that if you create a fun environment – where people laugh and can be open and enjoy the experience – then people are more likely to find it a great place to be.

Richard Branson said, ‘At Virgin, we have always believed that if you have fun and do good things then success will come.’

Give people the opportunity to build stronger relationships both in and out of work, liven up the workspace, create some out of work excursions, take breaks or play games.

7.       Bring in the best (fit) and over-emphasise the on-boarding process

You can go and hire the best person out there in terms of skill or technical ability, but if they’re a bad cultural fit or have values misaligned with the organisation, then you’re in trouble. Far more important is hiring for best fit.

But recruitment, as with training, is not a process, but an event. And nothing damages people quite so much as a poor induction to the company. At a time when there can be understandable uncertainty, now is not the time to get the basics wrong.

So after hiring for fit, the on-boarding process should be done early, it should be done thoroughly and it should be staged over the first twelve months to ensure greater chances of a successful integration.

8.       Keep your best people. Praise them and recognise them

It sounds obvious but you need to keep your best people. Too many good people leave organisations, rarely because of the product or service or business but because of the way they feel.

And whilst this is a broad area and could touch many points, often this is down to praise and recognition – or a lack thereof.

They key is to praise and recognise sincerely, frequently and using a range of approaches in keeping with the motivational drivers of the individual.

9.       Over communicate

I talked here of that fact that in employee engagement studies, one of the top three reasons for disengagement in organisations is lack of role clarity. Well, right up there with that is a lack of communication.

Long story short, there can never be enough communication. If you think you’re doing enough, you’re wrong. You can do more. And it shouldn’t just be one way – top down. It should be two-ways, vertically and horizontally. It should include forums and feedback, face-to-face meetings, seminars, educational events, social medial, webinars, newsletters – the list is endless.

Importantly, any communication should be open, regular and timely.

10.   Coach people  

The idea that coaching is only for professional sports-people is passé. The reality is that any professional who wants to improve should have access to a coach. And that coach could be either internal or external to the organisation and could be through formal or informal conversations.

As coaching focusses on increasing awareness to different options and then allowing the individual to take responsibility for the decision making and implementation, coaching therefore not only leads to improved performance but greater accountability and empowerment.

Foster a culture of coaching within your organisation and you will improve creative thinking, decision making and empowerment.


If you can figure out how to create a culture where people enjoy what they’re doing and enjoy where they’re working, everything else will be easier. If you can create an environment where the people who drive the organisation don’t struggle into work in the morning but are delighted to arrive, then sales performance will undoubtedly improve.

After all, if the organisation is a great place to work in then by default it’s likely to be a great organisation to do business with.


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