Over the last few years I have become a bit of a ‘closet geek’ when it comes to dictionary definitions! It is not often that you choose to pick up a dictionary (or search online these days) to discover the true meaning of a word, but I am becoming increasingly drawn to needing to know the depth to words that trip off the tongue all too easily.
Authenticity is a word that I hear people using a great deal – I use it a lot myself. I regularly use the word to describe individuals, or organisations who I personally believe are best placed to deliver the ‘best’ Customer Experiences. In being inspired to write this post, I thought it was time to reach for the dictionary again – so here is the definition of the word, authenticity:
The quality or condition of being true, trustworthy, or genuine.
Short, sweet and very much to the point. Authenticity is not actually that difficult a word to understand. What makes an individual or an organisation AUTHENTIC is to have the qualities to be TRUE to who you are and those around you; to be TRUSTWORTHY in everything you do; and to be GENUINE about what and how you do things at all times. I don’t know about you, but that definition does not sit too comfortably alongside many businesses that immediately spring to mind.
Right now, the world’s largest car manufacturer, Volkswagen Group, is in the midst of a crisis – a crisis driven (excuse the pun) by an alarming lack of authenticity among other things. Although it comes as a surprise for a company with, up until now, a very good global reputation, their actions have only added to the consumer’s growing mistrust of ‘big business’.
Tesco, one of the world’s largest retailers, lurch from one crisis to another – again driven by an extreme lack of authenticity. You can read about their latest challenges here. Yet VW and Tesco are only adding to a trend very much started by the financial services sector. The global banking crisis and enormity of the PPI mis selling scandal have all contributed to what could only be described s a TOXIC culture in the corporate world. I could go on – the energy industry; the telecoms industry; it is difficult to think of a sector that has not done exactly the reverse of the dictionary definition of authenticity.
So let me pose a question – is it possible for an organisation NOT acting authentically to deliver great Customer Experiences? Personally, my answer to that question is NO! The reason for my answer stems from the reasons WHY organisations do not act authentically. Whilst I cannot claim to understand the true motivations behind the crises I have mentioned, one thing I am pretty certain of is that they were stimulated by a focus on something businesses want a lot of…..MONEY.
A mantra of mine at the moment is that organisations seem to have lost sight of the reason why they exist. They appear to be under the illusion that their primary reason for being is to make money. Therein lies the problem. I believe that all businesses actually exist to FULFILL a PURPOSE – the better able they are to fulfill their purpose, the more money they will make. A subtle, yet very significant difference.
Truly AUTHENTIC businesses believe in that mantra. The next question I want to pose is this – do AUTHENTIC businesses actually exist? I am delighted to answer that question in the affirmative. I am fortunate and privileged doing what I do to come into contact with organisations in many different states of evolution. Recently, I have been absolutely blown away by the amazingly genuine authenticity of two businesses in particular. I was so blown away by them, I want to use them as examples to others of what can be achieved through an authentic approach to business.
CASE STUDY 1 – Weleda
Weleda has been developing anthroposophic medicines and natural cosmetic products since 1921, with the main focus on quality – from the selection of raw materials to the holistic product. Wherever possible, they use raw materials from bio-dynamic cultivation or certified wild collection. These materials are then checked and processed in compliance with their own high quality requirements. In this way, they use their many years of experience in the natural medicine and cosmetics industry to offer natural cosmetics products that bring mankind and nature together in harmony.
Now I have to admit that these are not my words….. I have lifted them from their UK website. HOWEVER….. I can testify…… and it is not often I can confidently say this….. that these words are absolutely authentic! This business quite literally lives and breathes what it does. A few weeks ago, I was invited to address their UK advisor conference. The event was attended by over 100 of Weleda’s most passionate advocates. The advisors act as ‘ambassadors’ for the brand that they believe in.
I have put the last few words in BOLD type intentionally. The key to the success of Weleda as a brand is the fact that every individual involved with Weleda is passionately; overwhelmingly; hook line and sinker; madly, truly deeply; in love with what they do!! I have never been to a conference where it was so clear how much every single person in the room BELIEVED in their purpose – not just the quality of the product, but the PURPOSE of the brand. It is usually me trying to inspire the people I am invited to address. In this case, I was inspired by them.
What defines their undying belief for what they do is a set of values that actually MEAN SOMETHING to every individual connected to the organisation:
- Fair treatment of customers, partners and suppliers
- Management – Employees Relations in a Spirit of Partnership
- Extensive quality
- Combining natural and spiritual sciences in research and development
- High environmental standards
- Ethical and value- creating business practices
- Cultural diversity as an inspiring force
The thing about these values is that they link once more to the dictionary definition of authenticity – they are all TRUE. They are all GENUINE. They can all be TRUSTED. To me, this puts Weleda in absolute pole position when it comes to delivering great Customer Experiences. It absolutely does not guarantee that they will consistently meet or exceed customer expectation, but the underlying culture will mean that employees and customers are far more likely to forgive when things do not quite go to plan.
What makes Weleda an even greater example of authenticity is their amazing humility. They almost struggle to recognise quite how good their brand is – making money is just an added bonus! Despite this, they do recognise that there is a need to get BETTER at managing the Customer Experience – and I absolutely TRUST them to be true to their word!
CASE STUDY 2 – Old Mutual Zimbabwe
The second ‘authenticity’ case study comes from a very different part of the world – and from an industry that you may not have suspected. Zimbabwe is one of the countries I have been blessed to visit in 2015. A few weeks ago, I was astonished at how focused one particular organisation is on helping their customers achieve something that may ‘feel’ impossible in a country that continues to battle with a struggling economy.
Old Mutual Zimbabwe is one part of a global financial services giant – Old Mutual Group. If you are not up to speed with your Zimbabwean economics history, you may not know that the financial situation in the country can be described as challenging at best. In April 2009, the Zimbabwean Dollar was effectively ‘abandoned’. By the end of 2015, it will officially be demonitised. It has already been replaced by the US dollar.
Rather than falling apart, what became apparent very quickly to me was how everyone I met seemed so appreciative of what they have. Not being able to live in environment where so many material things can be taken for granted, Zimbabwe has turned into a country where people genuinely seem to want to help each other – and that is where Old Mutual Zimbabwe come in.
A couple of years ago, the company launched a brand new ‘concept’ in the capital, Harare. Called the Green Zone, the concept may not seem that special to many – but in reality, I believe it is. The Green Zone is effectively a ‘one stop shop’ for all the financial needs a Zimbabwean citizen may have. Whether it be renewing car insurance; getting a life insurance policy; depositing money; obtaining a mortgage – the Green Zone exists to help Zimbabweans in a way that no other financial services organisation can right now.
Outside the shop front is a sign that says – every need; every day; every step of the way – and once again they genuinely mean it. Walking into the Green Zone, what immediately struck me was how much I would have liked to see the same thing in the UK – a place where anyone – existing customer or not, could just walk in off the street and ask for help with any financial service under the sun. I may be missing something, but I do not think that does actually exist.
The point here, is that like Weleda, the reason that Old Mutual launched the Green Zone was to be better at fulfilling their purpose. The organisational purpose is ‘to enable positive futures’ – they wanted to create a way of actually bringing this to life. They have now proven that the Green Zone not only has the effect of doing this, by delivering a great Customer Experience, it has also led to higher revenues. They have proven that by being better at fulfilling their purpose, the more money they can make.
Weleda and Old Mutual Zimbabwe are just two examples of authenticity and the way it can genuinely unlock great Customer Experiences. It should not take courage; or guts; or ‘balls’; to be authentic. It should take a business wanting to do the right thing – for its employees, its customers AND its shareholders – truly, trustingly and genuinely. As soon as an organisation puts the shareholder before anything else, the principle of authenticity starts to fade. So if you want your company to be more Authentic, maybe it is time to start dusting off the dictionaries!
An authentic customer experience is one that fits with the brand promise. But that fit is as perceived by customers. It’s not an absolute truth as per your dictionary definition. Interpreting brand values is a key factor in delivering an authentic experience – that’s the challenge for employees to deliver, and for leadership to empower and set the cultural framework.
Dictionaries are a rather rigid device for setting such a cx framework.
Instead, cx requires creativity, empathy, an appropriate action or attitude. Above all, it needs empowerment.
Nordstrom, the iconic US retailer, Built its cx on empowering their people to use their initiative and do the right thing by the customer. As a definition, it isn’t very precise. But as a principle, it offers far more direction.
Sadly I don’t think that many shareholders believe that organisations exist to fulfil a purpose, they generally exist to make money for the shareholders. If a company is looking at an acquisition it may be for many reasons such as complementary fit to existing business, diversification, increase market share etc. but the primary driver will be to get a return from their investment.
I totally agree that authenticity drives a good customer experience however! People know when you are being trustworthy or trying to pull a fast one.
I was in one of your training sessions in Zimbabwe but from malawi and I must say your sessions and experience has transformed our thinking about customer experience. Authenticity does drive great customer experience. Kudos on the tips and continue emparting that knowledge with these great examples.
Thank you so much for your kind words Grey – I am delighted that you are inspired to take your Customer Experience even further forward!