back
Customer Experience

How Marketers Can Cultivate Better Customer Experience Through Navy SEAL Principles

In today’s high-tech business environment, it’s easy to focus on technology, data and products as a company’s key value propositions. But because this environment is so dynamic and competitive, it is difficult to stand out through product features or service innovations alone. By contrast, differentiated customer experience can give companies a sustainable and competitive edge.

Marketers that distinguish themselves via customer-centric experiences develop trust with consumers and occupy the rarefied air of “favorite” or “preferred” in the customer’s mind. Satisfied customers spend more with their favorite providers, forgive mistakes more quickly and refer their friends. And, because the pandemic has dramatically shifted customer expectations, those who lead with customer-driven innovation may enjoy happier customers, happier employees and more stable business performance amid volatility.

But how can a company build lasting customer relationships, especially at a time when most interactions are taking place online? How can a business leader ensure they are educating and training their teams to be amazing client partners while juggling the demands of a new “virtual” reality? And, how can organizations maintain this greatness over the long term?

Lead Like a SEAL

Currently, I oversee customer experience for Comcast Advertising, the advertising division of Comcast Cable. Before my professional career, I spent more than a decade in the Navy SEAL teams. Those 10+ years of experience and training have instilled trusted leadership principles in me that are incredibly reliable and effective in the corporate sector, and even more so amidst a pandemic.

In the last 22 months, marketers across a variety of sectors have had to redefine the very notion, application and execution of customer experience in today’s fast-changing business landscape. Recently, I’ve leaned heavily on the following Navy SEAL pillars, which have been very effective in building strong relationships with customers and driving better business results:

1. Platoon Mission Planning

In the movies, Navy SEALs are portrayed as rigid, strong-jawed blocks of unapproachability wearing wrap-around shades. Tasked with a mission, a SEAL platoon commander barks short orders, which are immediately acted upon. The reality is quite different. As a platoon commander, I knew I did not have the best answers. Clarity of action and alignment of purpose emerge from an inclusive, collaborative platoon mission planning process, complete with dress rehearsals and iteration.

Whether establishing customer experience as a new core competency for your company, adapting to COVID-induced turbulence in your industry or planning for return to office, begin with the premise that you do not have all the answers. The journey to discover the best idea — not your initial thought — is the critical part. Bring the folks with the most information into the discussion early — your frontline salespersons, customer service representatives, back-office team and don’t forget actual customers.

Ideate after purposefully inflicting short-term memory loss on the group. That is, temporarily ignore present product offerings and limitations of legacy systems, then collaboratively work to uncover the best possible end-to-end experience for the customer. With that established, prototype and rehearse it with real customers. See what works and what doesn’t. Iterate. Improve. Test again with real customers — all before attempting to commercialize.

2. Fluid Leadership

One of the most meaningful pieces of advice I received in SEAL Teams was fairly simple: “Question what we do whenever you don’t understand, but never in the moment. It’s better to be wrong together than right separately.”

The reason SEAL Teams are renowned for excellence in extreme conditions is not because of unquestioning execution of orders. The way a SEAL platoon responds to adversity as a unified team is through fluid leadership, flexibility and decisive action. The platoon reacts at the direction of the SEAL who first identifies the threat — not necessarily the platoon commander, following his direction and quickly adapting to deal with the situation at hand.

Similarly, an organization’s ability to aggregate, prioritize and act on feedback is analogous to a platoon instantaneously pivoting at the direction of a threat. In many cases, the frontline teams are the first to detect an emerging threat to the business. If the leadership team ignores aggregated feedback from the frontline and from customers, the threat festers and ultimately hurts the business. One note of caution, though: It’s easy to overemphasize speed of response, over-responding to a singular point of feedback. The goal is a coordinated, end-to-end, comprehensively effective adjustment, not a speedy, siloed Band-Aid.

It is better to be wrong together than right separately. When done well, this leads to deeper employee engagement and job satisfaction while simultaneously creating competitive advantage for the company through higher customer satisfaction.

3. Reverse Hierarchy

In the corporate world, reporting structure is commonly depicted as a pyramid. We think about how many people report to a leader — the bigger the pyramid, the more important the leader. This is upside down from the way SEAL Teams think about leadership. As a platoon commander, I thought of myself as supporting my platoon, not my platoon reporting to me. As the officer in charge, I was responsible and accountable. Ultimately, I was the decision maker. Nonetheless, my mindset was purely on propelling the team’s performance, not how the team might propel me.

This was most tangible in our post-operation debriefs. After each operation, my platoon had a candid debrief, where constructive feedback was most often directed at me, the platoon commander. It’s logical. As the leader of the operation, I often made the most mistakes. If in a hierarchal reporting structure frame of mind, it is hard to accept direct feedback without being defensive or — worse — the hierarchy itself prevents feedback, period. But if in a reverse-hierarchy mindset, feedback flows crisply, and changes at the leadership level happen instantaneously.

Build Amazing Customer Experiences

In customer experience, as in other areas of business, many of us think of strong business leadership as confident and decisive, with an intuitive knack for anticipating market direction and opportunities. My experience in the SEALs challenged me to reframe that: Responsive, high-performing companies with sustainable, differentiated customer experience are led by grounded, vulnerable leaders, self-confident enough to accept direct feedback openly, to ask for and thoroughly understand proposals, to adapt plans appropriately and to admit and own mistakes quickly.

Under the leadership of the traditionally defined “strong business leader,” we rely on the greatness of the individual. But under the leadership of a vulnerable leader, we foster collaboration across business functions, inspire empowered employees and ultimately build amazing customer experiences through cohesive team performance.

 

Tony Sanchez is the vice president of Customer Experience at Comcast Advertising. This article was originally published on ANA.net here