How customer-centered leaders set the tone

July 29, 2022

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CEOs spend on average only 3% of their time with customers, according to a 2018 HBR article. For some CEOs, this figure was less than the time they spent with consultants. 

Why is this small percentage troubling? Because visible leadership interactions with customers send a signal to the rest of the organization that those interactions matter. 

What does this look like in practice? Here are a few examples:

  • John Chambers, former Cisco CEO, will keep you waiting if he’s working with a customer to resolve an issue, even if you’re a board member. To his organization, he is demonstrating that in some cases the customer is more important than anything else, and that not even the CEO is too important to help resolve customer issues.
  • Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, kept the customer top of mind by frequently employing the “empty chair” technique as they held important meetings. He intentionally left one seat empty in these meetings with the explicit goal of reminding his colleagues about the most important person (not) in the room: the customer.
  • Indra Nooyi, former CEO PepsiCo, puts herself in the customer’s shoes. When Nooyi was CEO of PepsiCo, she made time to visit a market every week and reflect on the PepsiCo products on the shelves. In an interview, she explained that when she does this, she asks herself, “What products really speak to me? Not as a CEO, but as a mom.” This puts a leader in the shoes of the customer, opening their mind to opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise see.
  • Tony Xu, Doordash CEO, enforces a policy where everyone in the company is required to provide customer service once a month. This policy has been met with some negative press, as developers considered these tasks to be “below their pay grade.” However, understanding how your company’s solution is used by colleagues and customers alike creates a sense of empathy that leads to better products, experience, and companies. Even Tony Xu can be seen delivering orders himself.
  • Eric Yuan, CEO of Zoom, dedicates time to sit in on customer calls. In a recent interview, Eric Yuan shared that he visits customer meetings every single day. He explained that, “if you say I'm busy, I do not have the time, they are not going to trust you anymore. You've got to lead by example.”
Walt Disney picking up trash in one of the parks
  • Walt Disney famously performed what he called “stooping to excellence.” Disney was one of the most prominent believers in leading by example, and made sure that his employees saw him performing the actions he expected them to do. By stooping to excellence and picking up litter in the park, he was creating a culture that transcends rank or hierarchy. 

So what can you as a leader or manager do to set the right example?

  1. Match your behavior with organizational goals

Is the example you are setting with your behavior contributing to specific organizational goals?  If you are setting an example that doesn’t match with the organization’s vision, it might lead to friction, when others emulate it, but the organizational context is absent.

  1. Don’t just talk, do

An issue you encounter are leaders proclaiming the value of customer centricity but who don’t actually come into contact with customers. What happens is that these kinds of leaders have no real feel for why people use their solutions and how it can be improved.

  1. Don’t just do, spread

Internal communication should also be actively leveraged and not ignored when these behaviors are put in place. Ideally, the stories about these behaviors are spread throughout the organization through pictures, videos, blog posts, or other means.

  1. Don’t do it if you don’t believe in it

This should go without saying, but if you don’t believe in these kinds of efforts, don’t engage in them, otherwise your efforts will fall flat or even worse, appear forced. Instead, find ways to set an example that matches your personal leadership style.


  • HBR Article - How CEOs Manage Time by Michael E. Porter and Nitin Nohria
  • Reorganize for Resilience: Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business by Ranjay Gulati
  • Inc Article - Why Every Amazon Meeting Has at Least 1 Empty Chair
  • HBR Article - How Indra Nooyi Turned Design Thinking Into Strategy: An Interview with PepsiCo’s CEO
  • Stanford Article - DoorDash CEO Tony Xu on Why Obsession With Detail Matters
  • Wired Article - DoorDash Wants to Own the Last Mile
  • CXO Article - Zoom CEO Eric S. Yuan: How to Manage Customer Experience?
  • CBS News Article - Lessons from an “amazing” evangelist

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