These Culture Problems Are Polluting Your Customer Experience

Conway’s Law: “organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.”

It’s amazing how much a company’s culture seeps into and shapes the customer experience. If your company fosters a positive culture, employees will go above and beyond to provide a positive experience for your customers. Does your company have great cross-departmental collaboration? Expect remarkably smooth transitions between touch points. A company that has positivity and compassion woven into its DNA (a.k.a. nirvana) sees better customer experiences, loyalty, and financial performance.

And while a positive culture will lead to positive customer experiences, a negative culture will erode your organization from the inside out. Here are some organizational issues that muck up customer experiences and how to address them.


It is easy to go into a leader’s office, ask their opinion, and follow the direction blindly. The leader is only one voice and is often removed from the nitty gritty details of customer problems. And, even if they know them, they are less likely to connect with those customer problems because of their own power. So why do we take their ideas as commands?

Here are some of the reasons I’ve seen this happen:

  • Don’t feel empowered to push back.
  • It’s just opinion vs. opinion (and we’ll lose anyway).
  • Don’t know how to get to customer problems.
  • Assume we know the customer problems without talking to them.
  • Are too overcommitted to make the time to do it.
  • Or the leader’s gut was right once, so we should just go with it.

The list goes on…

How Does It Destroy Your Customer Experience?

Following a HiPPO will rarely lead to great products or experiences. Studies have found that the more power someone has, the less they are able to empathize with others. So if we’re taking direction from a leader that doesn’t understand others, how do you know you’re creating something that’s useful, intuitive, and enjoyable to your customer? We don’t. Instead, we end up with products and experiences that are:

LICKI brush…yikes.
Push?? Pull?? I don’t know!!
Never knew this existed. Thanks, Buzzfeed.

The list goes on…

Food Stamp HiPPOs

In a past (work) life, I was pulled into the project in the eleventh hour to help revamp a SNAP fraud detection tool. The tool helped inspectors identify stores that were running fake transactions and giving SNAP (aka food stamps) beneficiaries cash instead of food. This is only a tiny percentage of the overall program, but still important to address as it could be damaging to the program and the millions of people that depend on it every day. To help cut down on fraud, investigators use the tool to track inspections, build a case, and ultimately cut down on the millions of dollars of fraud happening every year.

I was specifically brought in to make the already almost built tool “user-friendly”. At that point, no time had been spent in the field to observe and determine both the positives and the shortcomings of the existing system(s) from the inspectors’ point of view. Instead, many, many months were spent interviewing a select few in headquarters and creating and tweaking best-guess report prototypes. The team did not test those prototypes in real-life situations or got direct field feedback. They only listened to the leaders’ opinions and guesses.

The team jumped to creating solutions without understanding the problems. It could have been a great opportunity to really dig in the investigators’ challenges and make a difference. Instead, the team focused only on delivering what the leaders defined as requirements rather and a true solution.

The fix? Problems first. Customers and users always.

I will be the first to admit it is much easier to just take direction than to do research, formulate ideas, validate them with customers, and get organizational buy-in. But putting in that investment upfront will lead to a solution that matters and makes sense for your customers.

Invest in defining the problem first and working through ongoing customer feedback. It will pay off in a solution that actually makes users’ lives better.

Organizational Silos

In siloed organizations, there is often a contagious “them vs. us” culture. The culture probably developed slowly over time as the organization grew. Work and responsibilities were divvied up. Different goals and rewards were assigned to each division of the company. The goals weren’t always well managed, and small contradictions or inconsistencies drove a wedge between departments. This can take shape in many ways.

Them vs. Us

I’ve personally gotten sucked into “them vs. us” when working on product teams that felt at odds with marketing teams. The marketing teams were focused on making short-term sales numbers, while the product teams were looking at longer-term retention numbers. This seems like it could work at first blush. However, we were often left dealing with many people churning out because we weren’t able to give what customers thought they’d receive. One team was promising something to make their numbers that the other team could never deliver. Both sides felt like they are doing this to us.

How Does It Destroy Your Customer Experience?

When interacting with an organization, customers expect it to feel like they’re talking to one company. When that doesn’t happen, it quickly becomes frustrating to customers. They don’t give a crap about your company’s dirty laundry. They may drop off, spread the word of their bad experience, and are costly for your business.

How to fix it? Create a shared vision.

There are a number of ways to tackle silos — and I think they stem from having a clear, shared vision across the organization. Find that inspirational mountain that we’re all working together to reach. Make sure everyone, throughout an organization, knows that we’re going there. Paint a clear picture for them of why and how we’ll go. Work with them about how they’ll help us get there.

Also, rethink incentives.

Take a long, hard look at the incentives offered explicitly and implicitly by your organization. Ask yourself:

  • Are all of them helping move the organization closer to your mountain?
  • Do they encourage alignment and collaboration?
  • Are some departments given short-term goals while others are on a much longer time horizon?

Keep the ones that align with the shared vision, and scrap the ones that don’t. Figure out where the incentives are misaligned and strive to reconcile them.

Blame is a Core Value

We’ve all been there. The time when we see a coworker make a mistake and our first reaction is to think “thank goodness that wasn’t me that screwed up”. We may draw attention to their mistake, subconsciously hoping it eclipses our own mistakes (or how we may have contributed to the problem) and makes us look better.

It is important to note that I am talking about blame, not accountability. Accountability is positive. Being accountable for something does NOT mean you are the one to punish (unless it is the rare occasion of negligence or malfeasance). Instead, those held accountable are there to provide useful background and information about why failures occurred so the organization can work to prevent it in the future. Blame, on the other hand, looks for an individual to pin the failure on. People don’t fear being held accountable. They fear being blamed.

How Does It Destroy Your Customer Experience?

Blame stifles creativity, problem-solving, and teamwork. If something goes wrong, employees in blame-oriented cultures may instinctively strive to cover up the mistake rather than fix the problem. The fear of making a “wrong” decision will lead to guarded employees that don’t feel empowered to find creative solutions. People will have a hard time working together as they don’t want to be the one left holding the bag or associated with something that may not work out. The toxicity of a blame-filled culture will quickly taint even the best-designed customer experiences.

The fix? Focus on solutions.

The blame is usually a symptom of deeper cultural or leadership issues. The fear of making a mistake is so great that it seems better to throw someone under the bus than try to fix the problem. However, shifting toward identifying short-term solutions first and long-term solutions later can help break the cycle and create a more positive, productive culture. It will also lead to a far better experience for your customer.

Also, reward teamwork.

Focus on rewarding teamwork more than individual accomplishment. A top leader at one of my previous companies asked me about how he could reward his hardest working individuals who were continually putting in incredibly long hours. He saw those long hours as a strong indicator of top performance. At the same time, he was worried it would create too much of a divide within the teams by calling out those “rockstars”.

There is enough compelling evidence against overwork and on the negative impacts of rockstars that I think we really need to think long and hard as leaders before rewarding such behaviors. Instead, leaders should be looking for opportunities to paint a picture of where we’re going together. Help each team member see how they’ll contribute to making that happen, then celebrate accomplishments together. And model the behavior yourself.

Leading the Way

Let’s face it, no company is perfect — we all have some improving to do. I encourage every organization to recognize that cultural issues don’t just impact your employees. They impact your customer experience and can drag down your company.

Take steps to improve your business from the inside. Your employees, customers, and bottom line will thank you.

Product Experience Team Lead and Designer | Mission Driven, User-Focused

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