By Maria Geokezas, VP of Client Services at Heinz Marketing

In our journey to define the customer experience strategy for Heinz Marketing, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk to business leaders from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.  Most recently, I spoke with Sharman Ghio, a marketing and brand strategist, to gain her perspective on company culture and what that means for customer experience.

Sharman is driven by a relentless curiosity about what motivates people to choose one brand over another, the purpose of Sharman’s work is to evolve brands so that they deliver remarkable experiences inside and out. She has over 15 years’ experience as an entrepreneur in the arts and a marketing leader in the technology where her aim as been to solve unique problems and inspire teams to achieve bold missions.

Maria Geokezas:  How does a company’s culture impact their customer experience?

Sharman Ghio:  There are many ways in which the culture of a company can have an impact on customer experience. I’ll draw from recent personal experience to provide one example.

While wrapping up my workout at a local gym I heard the general manager comment to a personal trainer “The staff are not following orders. They need to get with the program or be replaced because we have to change the culture here.”

The irony in this situation is that the very nature of the manager’s mindset, choice of words, whom he was speaking to and where the conversation was taking place point to the crux of the problem with their culture. I presume that the lack of motivation by the staff to “follow orders” is having a downstream effect on member experience (e.g. locker rooms not being cleaned, members not being greeted by name, etc.) and this is causing the manager to think that compliance by staff will translate to a better culture which will magically correlate to a positive impact on the business. I believe he should reframe the problem.

To transform a culture you must help your team connect to meaning. By this, I mean to reconnect people with the purpose of their efforts and show a direct correlation between what they do and how it aligns with the mission of the company. Instead of placing the blame on the staff, the manager should have been asking himself, How can I help the team see how their contributions create a positive and consistent experience for our team and our members? By providing this context and connection, and fostering a people-first mindset, the ability to provide remarkable experience both internally and with your customers is set-up for success.

MG:  In this field, customer experience can go by many terms – how do you differentiate?  (e.g.: CX, customer experience, customer service, customer success, customer loyalty)

SG:  Overall I believe these functions share the common thread of being customer-centric with variances around what stage the customer may be in during the lifecycle of doing business with a company. Customer experience and CX are synonymous with how a customer perceives their interactions with a brand, whereas customer service may deal with how a customer is served in relation to a specific product. Customer success can be associated with on-boarding new customers and ongoing training and support, where customer loyalty may focus on rewards programs and retention.  A customer experience journey mapping exercise is an opportunity to identify all of these touchpoints and create a cohesive plan and alignment between various departments.

MG:  How does customer experience definition differ by type of organization – for instance, a professional services firm vs. a consumer company that operates a 500-seat customer service center?

SG:  I believe the CX definition of how customers perceive their interactions with a company applies to companies of all shapes, sizes, and missions. The strategy and approach may differ however in regards to scale, team expertise, technologies, channels, and measurement.

In my earlier example about the gym manager, for instance, one strategy for improving customer experience may be high-touch face-to-face interactions such as front desk personal greeting each member by name and recognizing their weekly accomplishments – Hello Scott, this is your fourth workout of the week. Way to go! A global fitness app, on the other hand, could have a similar strategy, however, their execution would require a different skill set and execution.

MG:  Are there specific elements of a company’s culture that have a greater impact on customer experience?

SG:  Two internal challenges that I believe are major blockers to being a customer-centric organization are lack of transparency and organizational silos.

To inspire a ‘do the right thing’ culture starts with two main ingredients – trust and autonomy. If people feel confident that they have the support and freedom to act upon their instincts this can often manifest in seeking out ways to serve others.

MG:  How do brand and culture intersect to impact customer experience?

SG:  A brand represents the essence of a company and the promise it makes to employees, shareholders, partners, customers, and others. Culture is part of the brand and represents the people and actions carried out to fulfill the brand promise. If customers’ perception of their interactions with a brand doesn’t match what they experience through various touch points then there’s a disconnect that can result in distrust and a customer exodus.

MG:  To change your customer experience, do you need to change the organization’s culture?

SG:  There are too many varying factors to give a definitive answer to this question, but you could begin by asking questions such as:

  • How do we define our culture?
  • Do our actions support this definition?
  • How do customers perceive their interactions with our company?
  • What mechanisms are we using to measure customer perception?
  • What is standing in our way of placing customers at the center of how and why we operate?

MG:  Most companies today operate in a top-down “waterfall” environment, if you aren’t the top-dog, what can you do to impact customer experience?

SG:  It can be challenging to build a compelling business case for CX when leadership is not on board.  I recommend you start by identifying and focusing on small wins that demonstrate the value of CX for your organization. Once you have a track record you can expand and get buy-in from other departments and begin to work together on CX pilot programs. Next, look for someone on the leadership team who you think can champion your ideas (think CMO) and ask if you can present your pilot program findings to them. Once this leader is on board, work together to take the ideas and learnings to the executive leadership team with the goal of gaining buy-in at the highest levels.

This process could take 6-12 months, and will likely include time and effort outside of your normal workload, but the payoff can be rewarding and exciting.

MG:  How do you know if your approach to customer experience is the right one?

SG:  The right CX approach begins by getting real about what you are doing and why it matters. When this is in alignment you can then begin to identify the levers by which you can assess if your strategy and efforts are paying off.

Do you talk to your customers? How about your people? Are you in touch with how they feel about your brand and culture? Do you know what’s important to them? Are your people and customers at the center of why your company exists?  All of these questions can be paired with ways to measure the progress you are making and change direction when needed. One of the most difficult parts of deploying a CX strategy is committing to focus and perseverance towards the long term relationships and benefits.

MG:  Do you have any examples of how culture impacts customer experience?

SG:  A few top-of-mind companies that are winning with their Culture/CX combo are Zappos, USAA, and Southwest Airlines. These companies are centered on the customer experience, plus they empower and reward employees who embody a people-first “do the right thing” mindset.

MG:  What are your favorite resources for business execs who want to learn and do more about their organization’s customer experience?

Some of my favorites are:


Research & CX Certifications:  Forrester

Consulting: McKinsey & Company


What are your favorite customer experience resources?  Reply via the comments section below.