I’ve been working for a global high street bank for the last 18 years and recently had the opportunity to second at 7 organisations across a variety of sectors. It’s been an incredibly eye-opening experience and enabled me to better understand these organisations.

My key objective on this excursion away from my normal business line were to understand how these new organisations deliver exceptional customer experience, how they recruit, train and retain their people and engage them, what culture best allows this engagement to come alive and finally, how they communicate the wider brand values and ensure consistency in understanding.

Personally, customer obsession has become my niche area of concentration and my absolute passion over the last few years. This was one of my main reasons for approaching this secondment in this way.  The drive and commitment needed to influence a customer’s experience, and the opportunity to explore this outside of the financial sector filled me with such excitement and anticipation, only made sweeter by the encouragement from my current employer to fully immerse and embrace the last 3 months. I have bundles of endless curiosity about how and why customer’s (or people more generally) behave as they do and how companies respond to this.

Five areas I want to share with you are detailed below and were evident across all the places and teams I was lucky enough to spend time with. Some of these places are still on a journey of improvement and implementation, but it has been an enlightening experience seeing the decision making and organisational structures in place, to make this their end goal.

Organisational design

Traditionally, most organisations have a structure, or a hierarchy, which is longstanding and reflective of the way an organisation has developed over time.

Over the last three months, I have experienced what it feels like to be part of organisations with a reverse hierarchy – a hierarchy that has been turned on its head. The way it looks at the world it operates in is completely different.  Customer’s sit at the top of this hierarchy, very close to the front-line employees, and head office functions and wider support staff appear towards the bottom of the structure. This really highlight that to be truly customer led, the focal point of any successful company must be the people who buy their product or service and who are the potential loyal customers of the future.

Head Office functions have been renamed Support Offices in a number of these companies to absolutely emphasise the need to provide complete support to customer facing employees.


Empowerment to resolve issues at first point of contact was clear throughout all the organisations I worked with. So often delays in response handling are a reflection of the time it takes an organisation to understand who is responsible or accountable for the issue at hand. All this, when it instead better to just say sorry and get the issue fixed.  This is not about liability, but this is about being truly customer led. The companies I saw doing this well were those who also had insight and data behind each conversation to understand those customers who complain repeatedly, regularly ask for compensation or who have an inconsistent relationship. Over time they can build a truly representative picture of each customer and their buying behaviour.

A day in the life

In each of the sectors, this was one of the main and consistent areas of focus, and truly shaped the visible engagement of its senior leaders and their wider teams, typically with absolute buy-in from the CEO.

I heard about and witnessed senior leaders spending time on the floor, spending a day with a customer or speaking with customers. In the hotel sector, two shifts are undertaken per year, and endless decisions have been shaped and overturned by this experience.

During my time at the universities, the teams shared that they spend a night’s sleep in student halls of residence to experience the life of a student and what it really feels like to share accommodation and kitchen facilities. This really helps them understand what it feels like to be a student in 2017 and allows them to anticipate and resolve problems.

Within the online retail business everyone who joins the company must learn the basics of packing a crate of food, distributing an item online, or within a shop. All these examples are designed to keep a business close to the customer and learn what is important to them. In my mind, this is a true sign of a business becoming customer led and most definitely NOT a tick a box exercise. The learning outcomes taken from these experiences are clear to see. This also means in times of seasonal pressure, or if a serious delivery issue arises, a whole team effort can be mobilised to be able to step in and support their people – whether that be manning a till in a store, or supporting packing in a warehouse –  to ensure the customer experience and the journey is not disrupted due to operational issues.


Recruiting on personality – not CVs and qualifications alone – and through optimising behaviour and togetherness, allows your people to be true to themselves and celebrate that they are different, unique and bring to the team a whole range of qualities and skills. In a football team, if everyone is a goal keeper or a striker, then the team will fail; you need a balance. The same applies with recruiting teams.  When asking employees during the last three months why they work and why they love what they do, it was inspiring to hear comments like ‘I am finally allowed to be who I really am’, that ‘they have seen something in me that no other company has looked for before’, and ‘it is recognised and encouraged that being unique and authentic is okay’.

Career opportunities and staff engagement

Interestingly, most of these organisations also proactively recruit and promote within their teams, initially advertising within and then branching out to the external market by asking for introductions and recommendations from existing colleagues. When internal engagement surveys have been completed sporadically throughout the year, this has been flagged as a key indicator and metric in direct correlation with employee engagement, and the feeling of being valued which has led to increased staff retention.


In summary, I have identified 3 key themes to demonstrate how businesses do CX superbly

Employee engagement

Ensuring any customer facing individual knows that they are a fundamental person in the business, e.g. that food packers in the warehouse of an online retailer know they have a key part to play in the customers journey. For example, if they pack a bottle of wine with a birthday cake, the impact their actions would have is inspiring!

The member of staff in the hotel who serves the guest, is fully empowered to do whatever is needed to make sure that customer has the best experience, and comes back. The university staff member fully understands they have a duty of care to their students, and their parents, to whom they are committed to helping as they start a new journey in life.

Consistency in brand, values and understanding 

No matter what role a person does, they represent the values and culture of that organisation and can communicate these characteristics to anyone who asks.

All decisions should focus on creating a positive customer impact

It became evident to me over the last three months, that genuine customer-led decision making within organisations, whether within Finance, HR or Marketing functions, must enhance the customer or employee experience. Otherwise, the proposition will not be approved.

Finally, a quote I came across in the last few months which neatly represents a customer led business: “The way a company truly looks at things absolutely determines what they see.”

Gemma Harrison

LinkedIn – Gemma Harrison

Article by gemma harrison