Building a Customer-Centric Culture

How to...democratize research effectively to build a more customer-centric culture.

Hi, I’m Crystal Yan. 👋 I’m a product and design leader and leadership coach. Here, I write about building products and teams. Every few weeks, I write about product, design, marketing, behavioral science, and management, and share resources to help you become a better leader.

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I lead a team responsible for launching new products and services, specifically focused on financial services for immigrants.

When we’re building something new that involves risk for the organization, we need everyone to learn from customers. The challenge we face is: how do we build a culture in which everyone feels comfortable taking part in research, and better understanding customers to make better decisions?

We have people not only in product and design focused on this, but people from roles ranging from compliance to engineering to customer service, all focused on making more customer-centric decisions.

I’ll talk about the challenges we face, and how we address these challenges in specific ways to build more customer-centricity and a better understanding of research insights on these teams. We do this by democratizing research: coaching teams to share, develop, and understand insights that impact their decisions. 

What do I mean by “democratizing research”?

For me, democratizing is about what it means for research to offer:

  • Transparency - people want to better understand how you understand customers

  • Actionable research - people want to find more actionable insights when it matters so when they need to make a decision, they can make the best decision with the information they have at that time 

  • Permission to care - often, it can feel like only product or UX teams are responsible for caring about research, but you want to create a culture in which everyone cares, and they have permission from management to care about how research impacts their work.

Here’s how I think about democratizing research to create a more customer-centric culture:

  1. Coach a team to research together

  2. Share insights to debate impact together

  3. Drive policies to change culture

This framework has helped me tackle the challenges inherent in democratizing research. I hope it helps you as well.

1/ Coach

Coach to research together

Here’s a common challenge researchers and research leaders face: you do the research, but others forget about it once they’ve read the report. There are two ways I’ve tackled this challenge: teaching micro-lessons, and designing quests to research together.

Teaching Micro-Lessons
Let’s start with teaching. To coach teams who are new to research, I typically lead a 90 minute introduction to research workshop, covering topics such as the difference between exploratory and evaluative research and how to uncover insights in specific contexts, and including activities that guide people through how to practice qualitative research. Although people enjoyed it, I sometimes heard, “I’m nervous, and I’m not sure if I’m ready to take this to my work.”

This was the challenge - it was hard to connect the concepts introduced in this workshop to the key skills they would need, and it was hard to connect that to what they could leverage in their day-to-day work. This 90 minute workshop format works well for consulting clients, but to make the content more effective for leading a team in-house, I broke it down into micro-lessons, each corresponding to a specific skill. 

One lesson focused on developing open-ended questions in general. Another focused on listening (e.g. what we think we are hearing) and crafting pointed follow-up questions.

I took these activities, made them shorter, and incorporated them to an existing ritual: a bimonthly team demo. I brought micro-lessons to these demos, where team members were already showing the results of their work over the past few weeks. I incorporated the micro-lessons into the demos, creating what essentially became a curriculum spread out over the course of a few months.

Here’s an example of what a micro-lesson looks like in practice: I put one slide on a screen with key customer quotes. I encouraged the team to take away what they thought they heard. Then, we would discuss it together. If you try this on your team, the first time you ask your colleague what they think they’re hearing, they may interpret it fairly literally. But you can ask follow-up questions such as, “What else are you hearing?” For a quote in which a customer asked, “But how do you make money”, your teammate might eventually come to the hypothesis that the customer is asking this because they don’t trust financial institutions in general, and then this becomes a hypothesis you can continue to explore in future research.

The overall goal is to spark this conversation as a team to understand what you are hearing one layer deep. Then, you’ll want to consider how this empowers the team to go deeper. If we hear that people don’t trust financial institutions, how can we do that exploratory research to understand this? This makes everyone hungry for those insights.

Designing Quests to Research Together
A common tactic I see employed is for a research team to host research office hours. This is a good starting point. But you can also create opportunities for people without the baseline skills to take advantage of office hours to engage with your team. In some cases, people are afraid of doing it wrong and they feel they can only go to these office hours if they are already involved in a role adjacent to research, or if they already have experience. One potential sign of this is if you hear someone ask, “Why am I crafting a research plan to get feedback, when we have a research team to do research?”

One approach I’ve taken to make research accessible to everyone is to design a menu of different quests - short research assignments for team members to put their feet into the shoes of customers. 

For example, for a team building a digital banking product, that needs to understand how people bank, you could design a quest for team members to go to the nearest bank and ask how to open an account. Different people could go to different types of institutions and learn about how this is done at each institution. It’s easy to think, if I want to understand how a competitor helps people bank, I could look at a similar product, another digital banking product. But we weren’t just competing with digital banks, we were competing with physical banks as well. And it had been a long time for many team members since they had gone to a bank branch, while this was not necessarily true for our customers. This quest was not intimating - it was an approachable task for any team member to go to a bank and ask a few questions. 

The big shift to make is that instead of waiting for people to come to you, create a quest that you can give them to go and do themselves.

Lessons Learned

  • Leverage existing team rituals to incorporate micro-lessons and quests.

  • Don’t wait for people to come to you.

2/ Share

Share insights to debate impact together

Another situation that I often face, and imagine you do too, is this: You are on a team and you care deeply about sharing the research and the outcomes of the research. But people are asking about the numbers and methodology instead of the outcomes, e.g. What does that number mean? Are we sure this data is up to date? While this is a typical challenge, it offers an opportunity: sharing insights is about enabling curiosity.

Challenge yourself to take a closer look at how you and your team are sharing today. Here’s how I think about the many ways insights can get shared:

  • Format (report, slides)

  • Cadence (day of, week of, at the end of the project)

  • Channel (email, chat)

Many teams default to creating a written report and/or presentation for each research project, and after they’re presented, it’s rare for these reports to get surfaced again at the right time when related research questions arise in the future.

Here are some ways you can change the way insights get shared today:

Overall, the goal of sharing insights differently is not simply for the sake of novelty. Rather, it’s answering this question: How might you share the outcomes of your research in a way that enables and invites curiosity?

When you ask yourself this, you may find that what this looks like for your team might be very different from what worked well for me.

Lessons Learned

In addition to sharing short stories that could be surfaced at the right time, I learned that sharing your plan for how to do this with peer leaders is really important. It helps to recruit co-conspirators: from marketing, growth, and other disciplines.

In my case, not only did they support this plan, they took this as an opportunity to share their own customer insights snacks, which further contributes to changing the culture of a team to become more customer-centric.

3/ Drive Policies

Drive policies to change culture

It is difficult to take on initiatives like this without executive air cover. So now, let’s talk policy: How might you change the culture of the team and give team members permission to participate even if it isn’t a part of their job?

Even if you and your team care deeply about research and believe that others outside your teams do too, they might not feel empowered to commit to it.

How to drive change to get this permission

Get support from leadership. How am I defining leadership here? Leadership is everyone who is leading a team, including but not limited to people managers who are responsible for the careers of different people on their team. 

Getting support looks like this: managers recognize people for their time spent on research both publicly and privately. They allocate budget, and give permission for their team to shadow a research initiative or simply digest and understand research someone else has done.

Here’s the outcome you want: Customer centricity is important, it comes out in performance reviews, and impacts decisions

At Remitly, there is support for quests at the company level. There is a program for employees to sign up to be responsible for sending money to scholarship recipients, using Remitly or a competitor, to experience the money transfer sender experience. We also have a program for employees to travel to a country Remitly operates in and experience the money transfer recipient experience. This helps us better understand the impact across the end-to-end customer experience. 

Depending on the level of research maturity of your organization, if there is one actionable thing you can do, it’s this: Find an ally who really understands research and the impact.

Then, ask this leader for one specific ask: ask them to make a 1-minute announcement to give permission to partake in a research project you are leading. Then, ask them to send a brief email to the team to recap this, and reiterate that they encourage and support people to participate. Even better, make sure they follow-up by publicly recognizing people who take them up on the offer. This is extremely high-impact. 

Conclusion

There are several common challenges research leaders face in advancing customer-centricity. To address those challenges and build a more customer-centric culture in your organization, you can coach your team to research together, share insights to debate impact together, and drive policies to change culture. 

Note: This essay is adapted from the content of a talk I gave at the Advancing Research conference to an audience of senior researchers and research leaders.

Additional Resources
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To get started with interviewing customers, download my Customer Discovery Guidebook here (exclusive discount for newsletter readers). This concise yet actionable guide will help you start interviewing customers tomorrow with the specific strategies, tips, and sample interview questions I've shared with clients for years to surface customer insights to develop new products, or improve existing ones. While there are many articles, books, and courses out there, my goal is to help you sift through the noise and make it easier to learn by doing. With specific step-by-step guidance and sample questions, you’ll be ready to craft questions and an interview guide to avoid the biases I described above within hours.
- To learn more about hiring me to coach you or your team on user research, book a time here.
- Or, book time with me for a product strategy session or career mentoring session.

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