Creating Customer-Focused Teams

There are five stages of development for customer-focused teams, each with its own distinct characteristics.

By Bruce Hodes, Founder, CMI

What is a Customer-Focused Team?

The word “team” is overused in business; it gets applied to any group of humans in a work setting. However, when you define a team as everything, you end up with nothing.

The best and most concise definition for corporate teams I have found comes from “The Wisdom of Teams” by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith. They define a team as “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” The crucial words are “common purpose” and “mutually accountable.” Without these, you don’t have a team.

In addition, for a team to exist there has to be adversity, challenge, and tension between the team and attaining a common purpose. No adversity and challenge means no team. You do not need teams for easy tasks. Tough challenges and high performance standards, such as those associated with customer service, quality, and profitability are essential for teams to come together and coalesce. Having customers consistently be raving fans of the company’s service is certainly a challenging and lofty goal.

What Is a Raving Fan Customer?

I first saw this term used in the book, “Raving Fans” by Ken Blanchard. A “raving fan customer” is a customer who is excited about the company’s service delivery and product way beyond normal. Raving fan customers remain loyal despite price pressure from a given service’s competition. These customers would go through a lot to get the company’s service. Even a price increase would keep these raving fans loyal buyers. Raving fan customers would wait in long lines and pay extra shipping fees for the service or product their favorite company offers.

Why Are Raving Fans a Good Thing?

Ask Zappos, ask Southwest Airlines, ask Apple, ask Jimmie Buffett, and ask CMI (that is, us). What companies do not have competition? When you earn raving fan customers, you have a strategic advantage over your competition. You have customers who are going to buy from you no matter what. In essence your company becomes a monopoly. This is the ultimate positioning from a business perspective. One frequently sees this with Apple’s iPhones. Apple customers are disdainful of any other smartphone product and are absolutely loyal to Apple—no matter what…even when Chinese workers might be suffering. Apple customers say “Heck, Apple might need to change some Chinese employment tactics, but no way am I giving up my iPhone!”

Customer Focus, Feedback, and Service Strategy

To create customer-focused teams, employees must understand that they win when the customers win, but there is more to this positioning than meets the eye. The customer win has to be defined so the company also wins. If you ask customers what they want, they will tell you, “I want the service and product for nothing.” Typically companies cannot stay in business by doing this. So the raving fan service strategy needs to be designed so the company and its employees can deliver. Back to Apple, its products are easy to use and its informed employees can teach consumers how to use their products. All this conspires to make many raving fan Apple customers. Every service strategy needs to be designed so this concept is reinforced constantly.

The front line (people who directly affect the customer) has to get feedback so they can:

  • Know what it is doing right in creating raving fan customers
  • Know what it is doing that is not working
  • Coordinate and fix problems with other departments that affect the delivery of raving fan customer service
  • Ensure customers consistently perceive great value from the product and service they are getting

Two challenges exist in creating successful, high-performance, customer-focused teams. The first challenge is clearly delivering to the front line the voice of the customer regarding the service or product. Therefore, it is important to create forums and opportunities for the front line to listen to the customer. The other challenge is to make sure everyone understands the standards by which customer service is measured.

A Normal Process for Team Development

Like people, teams go through different phases during their development. This is normal. A two-year-old human is very different from a 16-year-old. Likewise, a team that has been together two months behaves differently than a team that has been together 16 months.

There are five stages of development for customer-focused teams, each with its own distinct characteristics:

Stage 1: Getting to Know You

  • Feeling that this customer service stuff could be fun combined with some anxiety about how to do it
  • A degree of excitement about the concept of team
  • Figuring out who is in charge
  • Clarifying the rules and developing standards
  • Dependence is on the coach/leader
  • Coach/leader uses a directive approach

Stage 2: Wish We Weren’t Here

  • Feeling that this is not fun
  • Leadership and/or members are all screwed up
  • Feeling that “something is definitely wrong here”
  • Feeling uncertain and incapable
  • Performance standards not being met and a lot of finger pointing
  • Little agreement among team members regarding standards
  • Customer focus is rhetoric only
  • A lot of internal strife and no sense of mutual accountability
  • Task driven but a lot of individual agendas
  • Performance standards are not agreed upon

Stage 3: Getting Behind the Game

  • Performance standards hammered out
  • Increasing ownership of those standards
  • Decreasing hostility as the team begins working out personal differences
  • Focus on customers
  • Starting to like and feel comfortable with mutual accountability
  • Positive feedback from customers starting to come in
  • More honesty among team members
  • Failing forward—learning and improving from trial and error, with rapid recovery from mistakes
  • Enthusiasm and energy levels increasing
  • Support for each other evident
  • Small wins bring large smiles

Stage 4: High Performance and Raving Fan Service

  • Customers are consistently overwhelmed by the service and product
  • Team standards are met and moved outwardly by the team
  • Members feeling good about consistency
  • Shared leadership
  • Open and honest communication
  • Meetings are full of straight talk
  • Results are recognized by customers as high performance
  • Members feel deep concern for each other’s personal growth and success
  • The team outperforms all reasonable expectations
  • Team members are having a lot of fun

Stage 5: The Times They Are a-Changing

  • A major change occurs, such as members joining or leaving, a new coach, new performance standards, etc.
  • Confusion
  • Uncertainty regarding the implications of change

Developmental Stage Movement

In time, Stage 1 teams arrive at Stage 2. Stage 2 teams either will get stuck in Stage 2 or move on to Stage 3. Stage 3 teams can slip back into Stage 2 or move on to Stage 4. Progress or slippage depends on whether the team builds on its momentum or rests on its laurels. In Stage 4, the team can move on through consistent improvement or slip back by becoming arrogant and overconfident. Keep in mind that none of these stages is good or bad. They are necessary stepping-stones in the process that leads to high performance.

In the process of development, teams most often get stuck in Stage 2. To move to Stage 3, the team must hammer out the performance standards and commitment to achieving them. Also, team goals must become more important than personal agendas, which need to be congruent and in alignment with the group agenda.

In Stage 3, the group starts to take on a life of its own and begins to aggressively move in the direction of its performance standards.

Stage 4 is where teams come into their own and truly create customer loyalty. If the team becomes relentless in providing superior products and anticipating the changing needs of the customer, it becomes possible to become indispensable to your customers. Equally important to customer focus is internal responsiveness for employees and shareholders who directly benefit from high performance with increased earnings. This is the win/win/win stage of development.

Stage 5 is a bit tricky because it can occur at any phase of development and can be triggered by any change that significantly alters the team. Examples include gaining or losing a member, altering the performance standards, or receiving a new coach. Similarly, a major change in the internal or external environment will affect the team’s progress. Examples of this type of change include new products or services, new customers, or a change in rules and regulations.

Points to Remember

Customer-focused teams and victims (people who refuse responsibility and accountability for their behavior) don’t go together. Members have to want to make the team successful. You cannot create a team with a group of victims.

Enemies and customer-focused teams do not go together. Team members must have a basic regard for each other. They do not have to love each other, but at minimum, they should have mutual professional respect.

Expect conflict. Because performance standards are high, team members will have differing points of view on how to achieve performance standards. Open dialogue and discussion are useful to moving things forward. Remember that it does not matter who is right, but that the customer is served in an extraordinary fashion.

Finally, do not be afraid to experiment. Customer service strategies need to be planned, but it helps to be flexible and try new ideas that will make your organization indispensable to the people it serves.

Since growing up in his family’s boating business to founding his company, CMI, Bruce Hodes has dedicated himself to helping companies grow by developing executive leadership teams, business leaders, and executives into powerful performers. Hodes’ adaptable Breakthrough Strategic Business Planning methodology was specifically designed for small to midsized companies. In February 2012 Hodes published his first book, “Front Line Heroes: How to Battle the Business Tsunami by Developing Performance-Oriented Cultures.” With a background in psychotherapy, Hodes also has an MBA from Northwestern University and a Master’s degree in Clinical Social Work. For more information, e-mail, call 800.883.7995, or visit

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.