There’s a trend I’ve been seeing a lot of lately among clients and prospects: When asked what differentiates them, rather than pointing to their product or service, they’re quick to answer, “our culture.”
“Really?” I ask. “What is it about your culture that differentiates you?” The usual answer is “the way we do things…our people…how the customer can expect to be treated.” They then typically go into a long explanation of how many of their competitors say the same thing, but only they themselves really have a culture that’s different. Finally, they lament that it’s hard to explain, but once customers experience their culture, they find it really is different and worth a repeat purchase.
All that may be true, but if you can’t clearly express it in a few seconds or in a short phrase on your website, it’s not a differentiator.
Do customers care?
Do customers care about culture? Well, no…and yes. Early in the sales process, the fact that you have a culture you’re proud of really doesn’t matter much (unless you can quantify it and turn it into a unique selling proposition). But once a customer interacts with your people and the culture in which they operate, it turns into an experience that they value and return for.
Culture can be a differentiator—and a competitive advantage—if it’s turned into an experience that thrives inside the organization and is consistently delivered to the outside.
Making culture count.
In my Coffee & CEOs video series, it’s clear from discussions with company leaders that the best are doing something right when it comes to culture and how that translates to a competitive advantage. They’re thoughtfully and systematically designing their cultures and translating them into sustainable customer experiences.
Mark Kaiser of Lindquist Machine Corporation worked with his leadership team to identify key behaviors that would matter to customers. They then defined them for their staff, made those behaviors measurable, and built a behavioral model to map out how they were going to live their culture inside and out.
What’s more, the Lindquist team built in accountability by having each associate measure themselves quarterly on exhibiting those behaviors. They even posted their behavioral model publicly on the company website so customers and prospects know what they can expect.
By clearly defining and communicating their behaviors, Lindquist has turned culture into a differentiated experience.
Linking internal and external experiences.
Craig Dickman of Breakthrough Fuels has built a culture of innovation from the ground up. He started the company 17 months before he had his first customer. And he believes that time was key in planning a sustainable culture and process to constantly generate new ideas and bring them to market.
Dickman had become disillusioned with organizations that talk about themselves in the marketplace one way, and then behave very differently within their own walls. So he and his team developed the Breakthrough Experience to guide interactions with the company at any level, inside and out. He’s even put his marketing team in charge of the brand experience not only to the marketplace, but to their own people to create a joint, seamless customer and employee journey.
Like Kaiser, he’s done the hard work of digging deep to specifically define and clearly communicate behaviors that can be turned into an experience that employees are accountable for and that customers can count on time after time.
That’s what it takes if you’re going to rely on culture to put you as a first choice in your customers’ minds.