The 7 habits of highly effective CX leaders

Stephen R. Covey’s bestseller ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ is one of the most influential business books of all times, selling more than 40 million copies and inspiring...

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September 8, 2021
  • Habit 1: Be proactive.
  • Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind.
  • Habit 3: Put first things first.
  • Habit 4: Think win-win.
  • Habit 5: Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.
  • Habit 6: Synergize.
  • Habit 7: Sharpen the saw.

Habit 1: Be proactive.

Covey talks about the difference between the circle of concern and the circle of influence. The circle of concern consists of all the things that are out of your control, like the weather, the economy and mistakes that others make. The circle of influence consists of all the things you can control: like your skills, what you learn or your attitude. You can either choose to be reactive or proactive here. If you’re reactive, you’ll keep complaining about the things that are out of your control and get nowhere. If you’re proactive, you’ll not only not complain about the things you can do nothing about, but you’ll find out what you can do to improve the situation.

Just like that, highly effective CX leaders are proactive: they don’t overly focus on the negative parts of CX that they cannot control. Take the case of a really difficult customer who probably made a mistake in the online order procedure and then tries to pass off that mistake to a faulty website. There are two ways to react to that: put all your time and effort in finding out who made the mistake. If you find out that the mistake is the customer’s, (s)he will be annoyed anyway, maybe even livid because they see it differently and might never return, leaving negative reviews all over the web. And if the mistake is indeed yours, the customer won’t be happy either, because they will have had to wait a longer time before their problem was fixed. Top CX leaders, however, won’t put time and effort in finding out who made the mistake, but they will fully invest on what they can control: do everything in their power to put the smile back on the face of the customer. And do everything in their power to check, doublecheck and improve the ordering system so that mistakes – even those on the side of the customer – almost never happen.

Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind.

Covey believes that successful people have some sort of “map” in their minds of where they want to go in life. They determine their life goals and develop a plan on how to get there. They figure out their destination first and then work towards it.

Amazon has a list of Leadership Principles which is used every day, “whether they’re discussing ideas for new projects or deciding on the best approach to solving a problem”. The top of that list features “Customer Obsession”, which they explain in a very Covey-ish manner:

“Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.”

I’s a “rule” that I often mention in my keynotes and books: a company can only be great at CX if it starts with ‘the end’, with the customer – not its own great ideas or processes or whatever seems more important at the time – and works backwards from there.

Habit 3: Put first things first.

This one is about prioritizing. It seems pretty easy, but we all know that sometimes we get stuck in answering e-mails or in meetings that are actually a lot less important or urgent that we would like to believe. Covey designed a really handy quadrant to help us decide if we should do, plan, delegate or eliminate something from our to do list:

In CX, for me the priority is pretty simple: always focus on Joy (check out my video about that here), on the things that make your customers happy. That should always be the first and last thing on your mind. All the other things, that can sometimes take up a lot of bandwidth, may seem important, but they really aren’t, when you compare them to “Joy”.

Covey’s first three habits are about moving someone from being dependent, to being independent. They’re about self-mastery, inner strength, character, purpose, and values. The next three habits are about transforming from independent to being interdependent, which is the highest level of what Stephen Covey calls the maturity continuum (from dependence to independence to interdependence). Interdependence is the level where you think like a team or like a family and where you make each other better.

Habit 4: Think win-win.

This habit is where Covey tells his readers that business should not be a zero sum game. If there’s a loser and a winner – even if that winner is you – the situation is out of balance and will end up becoming toxic. So always go for a win-win situation.

Simply put, if you are a highly effective CX-leader, both your company and the customer ought to win. But I believe that that simple trade-off between financial value (for you) and product or service value (for the customer) no longer suffices today. Yes, customers expect a great product or a great service, but that’s no longer all. They will gravitate towards companies that have a Partner in Life strategy: like insurance company Centraal Beheer helping their customers with the installation of the solar panels that they help to insure. So that’s actually Win-Win² for the customer. And even more: today’s customer don’t just expect a win for themselves, but for the planet and society as well. And so Covey’s Win-Win formula has probably morphed into something like Win (for the company) – Win² (for the customer) – Win (for planet and society) when it comes to CX.  People are no longer content with a trade-off.

Habit 5: Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.

Many people only listen to others with the intent to reply, often even before the other finishes. But you can’t understand someone’s perspective and feelings unless you really listen to them. And really listening to your customers to understand them isn’t as simple as it seems.

Let me explain: as I learned from Leslie Cottenjé, CEO of Hello Customer, happy customers will rarely tell you spontaneously that they are deeply fulfilled by what you sell and how you treat them. That’s just not how people are wired. The voices we do hear, are those of the angry and very critical customers. We definitely should pay attention to them, and let their feedback inspire us but we also should not let ourselves be lulled into believing that that is THE voice of our customers. They’re still a minority. A loud minority, to be reckoned with, yes. But a minority nonetheless.

This is where data and AI comes in, of course: to find patterns, and give a voice to the silent majority, that’s just as important – if not more – than the dissenting voices. Leslie told me that when her customers started working with her customer feedback platform ‘Hello customer’, they are often surprised to understand that what they thought was a very big issue, turns out not to be not such a big deal across the entire customer base. “A lot of organizations come to realize that they have been focusing on the wrong priorities”, she told me. For instance, customers who thought that speed of delivery was a top priority, found out that customers found other issues a lot more important. So when it comes to customer expectation, it’s very important that you know who you are listening to, who you should be listening to and keep trying to see the bigger picture.

Habit 6: Synergize.

The idea behind this habit is that different people bring different opinions, ideas, perspectives, and strengths to the table. Instead of simply tolerating or accepting these differences, we should celebrate and value them. That is why the most effective CX leaders understand that it takes a network to satisfy customers. It’s about treating employees right and have them collaborating over silo’s, but it’s also about finding the right business and platform partners or even collaborate with competitors at times.

It’s car company Toyota collaborating with city designers, architects and software companies to create a fantastically advanced smart city project. Why? Because they realize that mobility is changing so fast that cars probably won’t be a big part of cities in the future and knowing that they need others to help them with their vision. Or it’s McDonalds collaborating with Uber Eats for their delivery, instead of creating their own chain. Or why BMW teamed up with Mercedes-Benz to develop a car-sharing business. Synergizing with the right partners will always result in a better, faster, more efficient and more frictionless experience for your customers.

Habit 7: Sharpen the saw.

This habit is some kind of metaphor of Covey. He describes a guy cutting down a tree with a dull saw and someone else advising him “why don’t you sharpen that thing, it will save you a lot of time if you do”. But the guy refuses, claiming that he does not have the time to sharpen his saw because he has to cut this tree down.

This anecdote so much reminds me of those company leaders who are so busy with day to day CX work and even cleaning up yesterday’s CX messes that they forget thinking about the future. And what they miss out on, is very often technologically related. They don’t make time to investigate new tools like AI or blockchain, 5G or IoT. Are these buzzwords? Of course, but their competition is probably already investigating if these could help them better implement their CX strategy in any way or other. And when they will start stealing away customers because they offer better, faster and more frictionless services, it may be too late to “sharpen the saw”. So, Covey is completely right that – especially when you’re incredibly busy – it’s always time to investigate how you could make your offering faster, better and more enjoyable.

Steven Van Belleghem
Steven Van Belleghem
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September 8, 2021