Culture is Key to Customer Experience

Published: Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

You know the right culture is essential for great CX, but what does that actually mean? What is culture? Here’s my definition: Culture is made up of a group’s shared assumptions about the nature of the world and how to succeed in it.

Assumptions are what people use to understand what’s going on around them and how best to react. Here are some examples:

  • Low trust culture. You assume humans, in general, aren’t trustworthy, so we have to set rules and monitor people to make sure everyone follows them.
  • Authoritarian culture. You assume the boss is always right, so we must never challenge people more senior than us even when we know they’re wrong. It’s a career limiting move.
  • Techno-centric culture. You assume the product with the coolest technology will win in the marketplace, so we should build whatever we find exciting even if no one wants or needs it.
  • Psychologically safe culture. You assume mistakes are part of life, not a sign of incompetence. If you mess up or something doesn’t go as expected, it’s okay to acknowledge and learn from it.
  • Collective culture. You assume the group’s success matters more than any one individual, so we are willing to do what’s best for the team, even if it’s not what we would prefer personally.


Culture is hard to change because most of the assumptions that shape it are unspoken. The first thing a change agent needs to do is spell out what you think people are assuming now based on how they behave. Then you can decide what you want them to assume instead. Here’s an example of what this would look like in a product-centric company:

  • What people assume now. The best way to succeed is to come up with a bunch of ideas for new products and services, then market the heck out of them to create demand.
  • What you want them to assume. The best way to succeed is to figure out what customers want to accomplish in life and find new ways to help them reach those goals.

Here’s an example I use with clients to change how they see the problem they’re trying to solve:

  • What many CX leaders assume now. People in their company don’t care about customers, at least not as much as they care about profits and financial results.
  • What I want them to assume. Customer experience is the “eat healthy and exercise” of business. People know it’s important, and on some level, they want to do it, but changes in the business world have made it harder to do what’s good for us.

These are just two examples. Most cultures have dozens, even hundreds, of assumptions like these—so don’t get caught up trying to capture them all. Make a list of the five that are most directly related to the change you’re trying to drive, then move to the next step.


Once you have a list of assumptions to change, you’re ready for disconfirmation—getting people to see that their old view of the world is incorrect. Of course, telling people they’re wrong never works as well as showing them, which is why I recommend a technique called “exposure” that psychologists use to cure people of irrational fears. The idea is simple—put people in the same situation over and over and let them see for themselves that what they thought would happen isn’t what actually happens. In CX, you might help employees see that customers actually don’t understand jargon-filled emails, employees with flex-time actually work more than those forced into offices on a set schedule, and that bending the rules in the name of CX really won’t get you in trouble with the boss anymore; it may even win their praise.

The key to making “exposure” work is repetition. People need to trust that what they saw once or twice wasn’t just a fluke—rather, it’s a more accurate view of reality. Expose them often enough, though, and they will change the internal database of if/then rules that drives every decision they make and every action they take. You’ll have changed culture not by force but by helping individuals change themselves.


Megan Burns is a pioneer in the CX field and CEO of Experience Enterprises, the firm she started to give people in large corporations a more practical, effective, and sustainable way to drive customer-centric change. Recently named one of the 15 most influential women in CX, Megan writes for and has been quoted in publications like the Wall Street Journal and Inc. Magazine. A Forrester analyst for more than 10 years, she built one of the first CX maturity models (featured in the book Outside In) and has written more than 75 reports on leading CX transformation.

You can follow Megan on LinkedIn at:

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