Core Values: Your Organisation Only Needs One

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A quick search on Google revealed the following sets of core values:

  • “Safeguard”, “Collaborate”, “Inspire”, “Anticipate”, “Deliver”, “Dream”
  • “Employees”, "Customer Service, “Innovation”, “Integrity”, “Fun”, “Profitability”
  • “Passion”, “Entrepreneurship”, “Responsibility”, “Team Spirit”, “Customer Centricity”
  • “Team”, “Passion”, “Pride”, “Commitment”, “Honesty, Integrity & Professionalism”, “Accountability & Responsibility”, “Continual Improvement”

I look at these and wonder how they can all coexist. Which is more important? What’s the right balance of each set of values? What do some of them even mean? In many cases, if we have to document these values it implies that they don’t already exist in the company culture, they’re documented as they’re the things we want staff to focus on. In my opinion, we need to get rid of all of this crap, let’s get back to what we really care about, either money, or customer.

If we only care about money, let’s make profitability the core value, to the exclusion of all else. Let’s assess every action we take in the workplace in terms of how it can make the company more money. Now, before you lay into me about how wrong that sounds, let me state that I don’t think this is a good core value, I don’t agree with it, and I think it is the wrong reason for any business to exist; but I do recognise that this is the core value for some businesses, and that’s why I mentioned it.

To me, the only real core value is the customer. If I want to put it on a website or some fancy posters around the office I would simple post “Customer First”, or “Customer Focus”, maybe even “Think Customer”. They all mean the same thing, and that is that our primary driver is to ensure the customer is happy and satisfied with what we do for them.

I’m sure many people are now wondering how we can only have one core value. What about the employees? What about our product or service? What about profits? To me, these are by-products of thinking about the customer. I’ll explain this further as I ask questions from each of the potential C-suite and define how this one core value can help to align a culture that is beneficial to everyone.

A number of the roles I will mention don’t exist in all organisations. Although a role may not apply to your organisation, hopefully the responses I give will help apply this single value to teams that may report to a different executive role. I’m working through these in alphabetical order, with the exception of the CEO who I will cover last.

# CAO - Chief Agile Officer

As Chief Agile Officer the idea of putting the customer first; this fits well with the goal of the Product Owners to deliver value to clients, but I’m not convinced about the impact it will have on the Scrum Masters and Developers. My initial concern is that the Developers will be pushed to deliver at the expense of their own health and well-being; I’m concerned that with a purely customer focus my Scrum Masters will be forced to drive the developers, they will have to remove impediments rather than coach the developers to resolve issues, and they may have to deprioritise some of the Agile ceremonies so we can put the customer first.

But this isn’t the case at all. When we think about what’s best for the customer, we can rapidly join some concepts together and see how to ensure we don’t make any compromises in order to better serve the customer.

Let’s start with dropping Agile ceremonies. We know these ceremonies are beneficial for team communication and continuous improvement. If we delve a little deeper, we can see that communications and improvement are required to increase both quality and velocity. Quality delivers value to a customer by ensuring the system is useable, reliable and does what is required. Velocity is about the speed of delivery, the higher the velocity, the quicker value is given to customers. We can already see that Agile ceremonies are required to deliver value to the customer.

What if we look at developers getting pushed to deliver. If developers are constantly pushed to deliver, they will generally do what is required in order to achieve the targets. If this means multiple late nights or some weekend work, they’ll do it. If it means working through lunch, they will do it. If it means forcing focus when they are getting distracted, they will do it. All of these things will lead to burnout or to the employee leaving; when an employee burns out or leaves, the productivity of their team decreases, and when productivity decreases value is delivered to the customer more slowly.

# CCO - Chief Compliance Officer

A Chief Compliance Officer often exists in a highly regulated organisation. In this role I would be concerned that by focussing on the customer, short cuts may be taken that will breach our compliance obligations or that compliance obligations will be somehow deprioritised and that would create potential legal issues for the business.

This doesn’t hold true when we examine the follow-on effect of ignoring compliance. If we ignore our compliance obligations then it is possible that we will lose our ability to trade, if we lose this ability then we are completely unable to serve our clients and as such we need to ensure our compliance obligations are met in order to serve our customers. In a less extreme situation, our compliance breaches could get media coverage or become public knowledge, in this case the trust we have worked to build will be lost, our customers will have less faith in the organisation and this will inhibit our ability to provide them with value. With these consequences in mind we can quickly see that in order to put the customer first we must also have a focus on compliance.

# CDO - Chief Data Officer

The Chief Data Officer isn’t too sure about putting the customer first, does it mean we can store less information about the customer? Does it mean we have to be more transparent about the data we collect? Will it impact the quality of the analytics that can be derived from the data?

For these questions the answer is yes; but by increasing transparency, implementing better anonymisation techniques and being more selective about the data that is kept the customer is more likely to provide additional data when requested. Further to this, when the inevitable security breach happens, the fallout from the data breach will be significantly lowered.

Although this aspect of the business will suffer some degradation, there will be a significant reduction in risk and there is a potential to gain additional data from customers to improve the analytics and ultimately provide them with a better service. By putting the customer first, the data analysis that is required to provide clients with a better, cheaper service and increase the value provided to a customer is not affected, the importance of this data increases.

# CFO - Chief Financial Officer

Here comes the Chief Financial Officer, it looks like someone is upset with putting the customer first. How can we be expected to make money? How can we provide a good return to the shareholders? How can we expand the business if all we’re doing is delivering value to the customer? Maybe our CFO forgot to have a morning coffee, because the answers to these questions are already well known and understood.

By focussing on the value we are providing to the customer we will have a much lower rate of customer attrition and we’ll also get more word-of-mouth marketing. We’re also not planning to decrease pricing, although if that’s one of the concerns it may mean we are charging too much and we should be reducing it. When we reduce customer attrition and increase word-of-mouth marketing, we gain more customers for a longer period of time; this will lead to a lower cost of acquisition, coupled with a lower total cost of ownership for each customer. As more value is provided to customers they will be more willing to increase their spend with the company, increasing the revenue per customer.

As the customer base expands and the income per customer increases, the organisations ability to grow and the return to shareholders increases, at the same time the economies of scale kick in and reduce the cost of goods and services sold which directly leads to an increase in profitability.

Perhaps it’s also important to remember that if the business is not profitable or not viable it will be forced to close down and a business that is not trading cannot provide any value to customers. It’s therefore important to ensure the business’s financial interests are cared for in order to server the customer.

# CGO - Chief Green Officer

The Chief Green Officer is a relatively new role; this role is focussed on ensuring that the company limits damage to the environment and may also be responsible for improving and protecting the environment.

Initial concerns for this role may be that less funding will be available for the department, that carbon offset initiatives may be scaled back or stopped. But with a brief look at the changing climate conditions and the desires of customers to improve the environment, we can quickly see that customers are wanting to support companies that are passionate about the environment.

Although the green initiatives of the organisation may not be providing a direct business value to the customer, the customer sees the green initiatives as a value add. Stopping or reducing the green initiatives will reduce the total value supplied to the customer, and may cause the customer to seek a more environmentally aware supplier; if this happens then the organisation is no longer providing value to the customer and value cannot then be provided to this customer.

# CIO - Chief Information Officer

Similar to the Chief Data Officer, the Chief Information Officer is concerned about the amount of information that can be stored but also about the potential for internal data sources to be deprioritised. As I’ve already covered the core concerns of the Chief Data Officer I won’t revisit this information, instead I will focus on the other information a company is likely to hold.

The CIO’s concern about the reduction in internal documentation is understandable. With a focus on the customer it is easy to let the documentation of processes and systems fade into the background, but when a holistic view is applied these document stores and the information contained within them are still important. If the documentation is allowed to become data, or if it is not created at all this will cause issues with onboarding new staff, it will mean when incidents occur staff are not aware of what needs to be done to rectify the situation, and it may mean records of customer interactions are not available when required. All of these outcomes would be detrimental to the customer experience and ultimately result in a reduction of value for customers, as such, to keep delivering value to customers it is important to maintain the information.

The Chief Legal Officer is concerned about aspects such as contracts, legal obligations of the organisation and other potential legal issues that may impact the organisation.

As with the Chief Compliance Officer, not giving these items appropriate attention creates a significant risk to the organisations ability to trade. Some modifications may occur to the contracts that are prepared for customers so that they are more equitable, but in many cases the contracts will not need changing in the short term and possibly not even in the longer term. In order to best serve the customer the organisation will still give attention to the duties of the legal officers in the organisation and will actively work to minimise risk.

# CMO - Chief Marketing Officer

The Chief Marketing Officer is concerned about the changes that may be required to marketing materials. Some of the ideas that are exaggerated in the advertising will need to be modified, but in the medium to long term the work of the marketing department will become easier. As more staff become customer focussed, the understanding of the benefits being provided improve. This will mean when marketing asks about the benefits of new products or services, when they ask about the impact it has on customers, more staff are aware of this and can provide detail that can be used in marketing material with less modification.

Another benefit of being more customer focussed is that when the marketing team wants to do a case study on a customer, the customer will be much more open to being involved and will be more willing to become involved.

# COO - Chief Operations Officer

The Chief Operations Officer is concerned about the impact a customer focus will have on staff. Like the Chief Agile Officer, they are concerned about the additional pressure put on staff and the potential for burn-out; they are also concerned about a potential increase in hiring and the reduced opportunities for team building and training exercises.

Again, by focussing on the benefits to the customer none of these concerns will become a reality. In order to best serve the customer staff workload must be maintainable, the reasons for this have already been outlined in the Chief Agile Officer section, so I won’t revisit them.

Without the increased risk of burn-out, any increase in hiring will only be in the short-term as additional staff are brought onboard to account for gaps in providing customer value, or will be in line with the organisation growth (in which case additional HR staff can be hired).

The requirement for team building and training will either remain the same or increase. If the organisation has not had a significant customer focus in the past, the need for training and team building will temporarily increase to ensure that staff are happy, able to work together and have the knowledge they require to best serve the customer. As the organisation stabilises the training and team building will become an integral part of business operations, but will always have a focus on the benefit to the customer.

Other items that may be of concern to the Chief Operations Officer are factors such as payroll staff, office managers and other ancillary functions that are required for an organisation to operate effectively. With a customer focus, these roles will be recognised for their importance due to the potential impact that can occur to customers should they not operate effectively. If an office manager’s role is not being fulfilled then productivity of staff will decrease, this will then impact the potential to provide value to customers. Similarly, if staff are not paid as per expectations they will cease working and the organisation will again not be able to deliver value to the customer.

# CPO - Chief Product Officer

The Chief Product Officer loves that the organisation is so focussed on the customer. This person’s biggest concern is the viability of their role as more of the organisation becomes customer focussed. Thankfully they do not need to worry, as more of the organisation becomes customer focussed additional work will be given to the product team as people can see new ways to provide value to customers. Further to this, the CPO will be in one of the best positions to help the organisation maintain their customer focus and increase the value provided to the customer.

# CSO/CGO - Chief Sales/Growth Officer

The Chief Sales Officer or the Chief Growth Officer will generally appreciate the increase in customer focus. It will make the sales process easier. This will be achieved by providing better value and a more comprehensive offering to customers and will also be helped by the increased profile the company will have within the market.

As the sales team becomes more customer focussed they may have concerns about a reduction in the commission they can earn, or about it becoming harder to achieve the required rate of return. This will be caused by the customer focus resulting in a decrease in profit margins but it will be countered by the increased quantity of sales that can be made as the company reputation increases.

# CSO - Chief Security Officer

The Chief Security Officer will see many positives in a customer focus, but will also have a number of concerns.

The positives will be centred around the attention that is placed on security of customer data, and also on the systems that are improved to ensure customers cannot inadvertently trigger a security incident.

The concerns will centre around the potential for internal security policies to be diluted and for internal security to lose importance. As with the Chief Data Officer and Chief Information Officer concerns, these are easily countered by assessing the impact a failure could have on customers and the value they derive.

# CSO - Chief Strategy Officer

Depending on the type of organisation, a Chief Strategy Officer could see this as an extreme positive, a negative, or somewhere in between.

Organisations that are expanding will be able to better assess potential acquisitions based on the value that can be provided to customers. Organisations that are seeking to expand within their market will be able to focus on the customer to improve their reputation in the market which will lead to a natural increase in market share.

Organisations that are in a market that has a negative perception by customers will need to make some difficult strategy choices to ensure that they can focus on the customer, this may mean balancing customer perceptions of the organisation’s ethics with the ability to deliver product at an acceptable market price.

# CTO - Chief Technical Officer

The Chief Technical Officer will generally be in favour of a customer-centric focus. With the focus on providing value for customers the organisation will actively strive to find the balance between new features, reliability and technical debt.

Of course someone in this role will be concerned by the potential for developers to be placed under additional pressure and to focus on the customer to the exclusion of their own well-being. But, as Agile is so popular amongst development teams this should already be familiar to a CTO and would be considered an existing part of the role.

# CEO - Chief Executive Officer

Of all the people outlined in this article, the Chief Executive Officer will be the one to face the biggest challenges. The challenges faced in this role will be to help the entire organisation find the correct balance between all of the competing secondary values and the core customer value.

With the formalised focus on customer, many parts of the organisation will place too much focus on aspects that directly impact customers and will not view the bigger picture. The CEO will be responsible to helping other members of the C-suite find the right balance between providing direct and indirect value to customers; in communications with staff and also with external entities they will have to highlight the customer-centric focus of the business, but will also have to demonstrate to all stakeholders that being customer focussed does not mean that services which have an indirect impact on customers can be forgotten. The CEO will need to help the C-suite and other staff to recognise the importance their role plays in delivering value to the customer.

# Summary

In this article I have attempted to demonstrate how an organisation can have a single core value that focuses on the customer. I have tried to view the customer focus from all aspects of the organisation. I am sure with additional work this could become a much more comprehensive overview and could easily be converted into a set of guidelines for the implementation of this single core value.

If anyone has or is interested in implementing a core value like this I would love for you to reach out to me. The best way to do this is to connect to me on LinkedIn. I’d love to know more about any existing implementations and the challenges that were encountered; I’d also love to become involved in the implementation of a single core value framework to help others with implementing a similar solution in future.