Why Enlightened Leadership Is Key to Customer Experience

leadership for customer experience
Great leaders get right into it with their teams.

A few years ago, I figured out how to articulate something I knew in my gut: I only work with enlightened leaders. I say this because it takes enlightenment to really understand the importance of working on customer experience as a constant focus, not just a one-off project. It takes enlightenment to create a workplace that supports a superior customer experience through empowered employees who follow a culture, not a rule book.

But most of all, it takes enlightenment to hear the truth.

Your customers are facing difficult journeys, and sometimes that is your fault. Hearing your customers are abandoning your web site because it’s out of date and lacking mobile options is challenging to hear. Hearing your customers are reporting feeling neglected or abused is never easy to hear. Leaders, especially those who were a part of founding or growing an early-stage organization, often have trouble believing bad news. Entrepreneurs deliver an experience based on who they are, just like parents. It’s organic, ever changing and usually very responsive. If ONE customer has an issue in those early days, the entrepreneur will typically do whatever it takes to make it better. The problem is when those steps aren’t repeated or documented.

As a company grows, there are new layers of staff, processes and customer procedures. If one customer misses a payment, often the rest are held responsible. They feel the pain of one irresponsible customer by being asked to jump through more hoops and hearing language that is proactively punitive. Suddenly, there are ALL CAPS on invoices. There are new terms for payment, including lacking any compassion or understanding, even though there is a personal relationship.

Yes, it’s part of growth. Yes, leadership must protect the sustainability of the business. But focusing on only what’s going wrong is a surefire way to create more wrong and a lot less right.

In our Customer Experience Investigations™ we find some ugly truths. They are ugly because many times the intentions are SO GOOD and yet the final outcome is one that leaves customers baffled, bewildered or beyond frustrated.

Enlightened leaders require a thick skin and a desire to learn from mistakes. They require an understanding of motivation and mission and how that translates to their employees and customers. They need to look at the entire experience as a journey of “we” instead of us v. them. It is a lot to ask.

Enlightened leaders take specific actions to improve customer experience.

1. Enlightened leaders see the future.
While it’s easy to say a threat is not a threat when you are #1, those baby threats of competition or changing marketplaces grow up so quickly! Look at what happened to Kodak, Borders or Tower Records. The future is now. Don’t wait until it passes you by.

2. Enlightened leaders communicate early and often.
Employees who are left in the dark will fill in the blanks with the worst case scenario. This leads to dropping morale, an active rumor mill and the overall degradation of a workplace culture.

3. Enlightened leaders invite the truth.
When meetings with leadership are simply an exercise in kissing up, nobody wins. Leaders should ask all in their organization to keep an eye on the customer experience and feel empowered to make suggestions, report shortcomings and discuss what is going wrong. They are not punished for these remarks, but rather they are rewarded.

4. Enlightened leaders recognize greatness.
Nothing can discourage a hard-working employee more than hearing during a review “you are doing VP-level work, but we can’t get you to VP level until a year at director level.” Let your employees shine and help them find the best place for them, even if that means skipping a level if it makes sense. Promote the truth tellers!

Nothing kills a great company faster than leaders who simply “don’t get it.” Is your leadership enlightened?

Photo credit: Granov via Creative Commons license

Jeannie Walters

Jeannie Walters is the Chief Customer Experience Investigator™ and founder of 360Connext, a global consulting firm specializing in the cornerstones of customer experience: customer engagement, employee engagement and connections like social media. 360Connext serves mid-market companies and larger by helping them evaluate their true customer experience. The evaluations always lead to improvements which then lead to results like increased online conversions or loyalty.

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Adam | Customer Experience
Adam | Customer Experience

Excellent post Jeannie! Point 3 is crucial -- not only wanting to hear the truth but also making sure the people being led understand that truth will not be punished but is welcome no matter how difficult the news.

I would also add that enlightened leaders can differentiate the short term from the long term and accordingly understand the difference between an investment and an expense.


This is a great post Jeannie. It's surprising to me how many times organizational leaders aren't willing to take what they perceive as a risk to move beyond the status quo. Yet, in fundamental start-up years, they had no choice. You certainly offer a great perspective here. Hoping this sentiment begins to echo through organizations. Complacency is a sure demise to future growth and success. Thanks for sharing.

jeanniecw moderator

@Adam | Customer Experience Love that addition, Adam. Investment is long term and requires vision. If there is no vision, it's day to day and ultimately becomes a reactive culture instead of a proactive one. 

jeanniecw moderator

@ldiomede1 Thanks, Lisa. Great point about taking risks in those early years and then suddenly becoming risk averse. It seems to happen a lot! The best leaders see that serving customers first pays off long term.