The Journal of Total Rewards

2nd Quarter | 2019 | Volume 28

How Compensation and Benefits Build and Sustain a Customer-Focused Culture


Customer-focused culture is based on the concept that what’s best for the customer is best for the business. Organizational culture affects employee perceptions as well as workplace behaviors that contribute to the success or failure of an organization. Properly designed compensation and rewards systems keep employees focused on what’s important from an organization’s perspective, reinforce desired employee behavior, and eventually lead to alignment of organizational and individual goals. Therefore, a systematic way to build a customer-focused culture is to value, recognize and reward behaviors that support the desired culture. A customer-focused culture requires seven building blocks (7Cs): customer insight, competitor awareness, a collaborative approach, CEO leadership, criteria for decision making, customer value creation and a compensation system (Madhani 2018). A compensation and rewards system is one of the powerful levers in building a customer-focused culture.

Compensation and rewards practices define the relationship between the organization and the individual member by specifying the terms of exchange. Organizational culture expresses values and norms to which employees must conform and specifies the contributions expected from them as well as the rewards individuals can expect to receive as a result of their performance. Three key elements of organizational culture — values, norms and beliefs — influence the behavior of employees. Values are the qualities an organization considers most significant to its business operations, employees and customers. Norms are unwritten rules of behavior in the organization that help “operationalize” actions that are consistent with values and beliefs, such as behavioral expectations of how employees interact with customers. For example, a common norm within customer-focused organizations is that employees are customer advocates. Beliefs are opinions individuals hold about their organization and themselves. Values and beliefs of a customer-focused culture include customer-centric goals and values.

An organization should use its values and beliefs as the foundation for hiring, managing, rewarding and shaping the behavior of the employees. Once the desired organizational culture is defined, compensation and rewards systems should be tailored to support and reinforce that culture (see Figure 1). Compensation and rewards plans linked with customer metrics provide employees with an opportunity to focus and share in the successes (or challenges) of the customer experience. Thus, compensation and rewards systems affect and influence the organization’s values and beliefs and, ultimately, organization culture.



The competing values model (CVM) is the most widely used model to describe corporate culture. It incorporates the extent of the organization’s orientation (i.e., internal or external) and the degree of freedom (i.e., control or flexibility) to the requirements of the environment. The first dimension has an internal, person-oriented emphasis characterized by integration versus an external, organization-oriented emphasis characterized by competitiveness. The second dimension has an emphasis on stability and control characterized by mechanistic processes versus an emphasis on flexibility and change characterized by organic processes. CVM produces an assessment of the extent to which an organization possesses four core cultural types: group (also called clan); developmental (adhocracy); rational (market) and hierarchical (hierarchy) (Cameron et al. 2006). (See Figure 2.)


An organization’s approach to developing, administering and managing compensation and rewards systems can influence the degree to which employees view an organization as having a people-oriented (clan), innovation-oriented (adhocracy), process-oriented (hierarchical) or result-oriented (market) culture. Research has found that all four culture types in the CVM were positively correlated, which researchers proposed indicates the values in the four culture types may not be mutually independent competing values (Hartnell, Ou, and Kinicki 2011). That research also noted that when one describes cultures based on competing or dominant culture types, one ignores the potential synergy between the various values.


Clan culture is characterized by internal orientation with flexibility, while market culture pays attention to external orientation with control.

Clan Culture

The term “clan culture” describes a control system based on socialization and internalized values and norms. As such, clan culture represents a high level of informal controls to achieve its objectives. In this culture, strong fraternal relationships among organizational members exert peer pressure to adhere to organizational norms. Clan culture focuses on people and is characterized by shared decision making and the perception that the organization takes care of employees. Internal marketing (IM) and service-profit chain (SPC) concepts focus on taking care of employees to enhance their satisfaction and strengthen clan culture.


Market culture tends to be results-oriented and concentrates on getting the job done. Market culture fulfills its measurable goals of profitability targets and market share with instruments such as motivation, reward and recognition. It also reflects competitiveness, diligence, perfectionism and aggressiveness. Market culture relates to values and beliefs that help employees understand the marketing function. It sets norms of behavior in the organization that are vital for the performance of marketing activities (Madhani 2014a).

The core values of a market culture are productivity, competitiveness and goal achievement. It is a workplace with a hard-driving work culture and a contractual relationship between the individual and organization. The market culture is not designed to generate loyalty, cooperation or a sense of belonging. Members do not feel constrained by norms, values or allegiance to an accepted way of doing and thinking. Because a market culture is results oriented with outcome control, it exerts a lesser degree of informal control (Madhani 2014a).


A market culture uses performance metrics such as market share, sales growth, profitability and strength in market niches. It is characterized by achievement of measurable tasks and requiring agreed-upon goals, with a great emphasis placed on individual performance. Therefore, the formal control orientation focuses on outcome-based control, which supposes greater interest in the consequences of behaviors than in the behaviors themselves. Nonquantifiable aspects of performance generally are not evaluated. In this culture, compensation systems are driven by the organization’s main operating assumptions that it must retain/gain market share to survive and prosper.

Market cultures hold employees accountable for goal achievement and use compensation systems that reward employee output. Because there is a focus on measuring only the results without much regard to the process, it may lead to unhealthy practices in which individuals see their peers as rivals and solely focus on short-term results. Informal interactions between superiors and subordinates are infrequent. Feedback is oriented more toward evaluation than employee development. The rewards system is not conducive to building a mentormentee relationship, nor is it likely to contribute to the transmission of subtle norms and values.


To make organization more customer-focused, it is necessary to examine the organization’s incentive and rewards systems and manage them with appropriate outcome and behavior control. The basic law of behavior states that greater incentives will lead to more effort and higher performance. Employers often use extrinsic incentives as behavioral interventions. However, linking monetary incentives to behaviors that would otherwise be adopted or performed voluntarily sometimes has the undesired effect of reducing the performance of those behaviors. This phenomenon is known as the crowding-out effect of explicit incentives on intrinsic motivation (Gneezy, Meier, and Rey-Biel 2011). The term “motivation crowding out” refers to an undermining effect of rewards.

In a customer-focused culture, performance measurement is based on a combination of two factors: outcome (or results) and behavior. As shown in Figure 3, a customer-focused culture empowers employees and emphasizes behavior control. It also enables competitiveness while emphasizing outcome control. Outcome and behavior control are necessary because organizations shouldn’t reward employees who achieve results but break company policies to do so. Neither should it reward people who follow the rules but don’t produce. Thus, a customer-focused culture must figure out ways to evaluate both the end results, as well as the behavior of its employees. Behavior-based controls enhance an employee’s willingness to perform activities that contribute to long-term results rather than immediate outcomes typically based on easily measured, short-term results. However, outcome-based control enhances an employee’s inclination to perform tasks generating results in the short term (Madhani 2014b).


Some form of customer feedback metrics should be directly incorporated into employee incentives. Businesses such as IBM Corp., Xerox Corp., Infiniti, Appleton Papers Inc. and Chrysler Corp. have linked customer satisfaction ratings with employee incentives and bonus systems. However, among those companies that tie compensation to customer experience, employee behavior often does not meet expectations. Instead of focusing on learning how to earn their customers’ adulation, employees often spend their energy not only on understanding how customer satisfaction iscalculated and why it isn’t right, but also why they shouldn’t be held accountable. In worst cases, there is a temptation to game the customer scores by using shortcuts and unethical behavior. The most common form of gaming is not sending customer feedback surveys to customers who are likely to be dissatisfied or indulging in survey begging. Survey begging involves asking for high scores, often offering discounts in return for good ratings, or employees suggesting they might get in trouble for poor reviews. Gaming behaviors are bad for both customers and organizations (Benjamin and Doerr 2017).

To reduce gaming, it is necessary to tie monetary incentives not only to outcomes but to behavior as well. Behavior-based incentive systems reward employees for behaviors that have a high probability of improving the customer experience. A focus on outcomes over behaviors can sometimes inspire employees to deploy more manipulative selling tactics. For building customer-focused cultures, organizations should consider rewarding different types of behavior over time. Initially, employees might be rewarded for participating in customer relationship training. Next, they might be rewarded for successfully handling unhappy or dissatisfied customers. Later, they might be rewarded for the number of customer problems they resolve or for coaching other employees.

Sometimes employees feel dissatisfied based on factors beyond their control, such as slow IT systems, intractable policies or product deficiencies. When employees feel they can’t reliably influence the customer experience, they look for other things they can influence, which often leads to gaming and cheating. In these circumstances, they perceive that their employer is treating them unfairly and devaluing their contributions. It sends a signal that what ultimately matters most is the customer score, not the employee’s effort or impact on the customer experience (Benjamin and Doerr 2017). Failing to effectively design a customer-metric based compensation system runs the risk of producing unintended consequences that can hurt customers as well as overall performance. When employees feel that customer ratings put their compensation at risk, they’re less likely to take on challenges or look for better ways to satisfy customers. Hence, it is necessary to set reasonable and attainable goals to encourage risk taking. Because incentive pay often leads to unintentional and dysfunctional consequences, compensating for specific behaviors rather than customer ratings can help keep employees focused on customer service.


Organizations included in many of the “Best Places to Work” lists have a near-universal adoption of a total rewards strategy, in which salary and cash bonuses constitute only a part of rewards packages (Thibault Landry, Schweyer, and Whillans 2017). Employees’ behavior and attitudes are affected by their satisfaction with both financial and nonfinancial rewards (De Gieter and Hofmans 2015). Financial rewards — which support attributes of a market culture — are associated with a lower level of internalization and thus can undermine intrinsic motivation. Organizations incorporate nonfinancial rewards — an attribute of clan culture — in rewards design to motivate employees to perform better because employees are not motivated solely by financial rewards. An effective rewards design influences the behavior of employees and leads to a positive customer-focused outcome.

Financial Rewards

A customer-focused culture needs to pervade the entire organization to have customer-satisfaction experiences become seamless. Customer satisfaction can be made a part of the employee performance management process as it creates a culture in which everyone is strives to please the customer. Top performers are determined by more factors than just sales outcomes. When companies attach compensation and incentives to customer ratings, they send an explicit message to employees that customer satisfaction is important, highly valued and rewarded. In organizations with a customer-focused culture, compensation is tied with customer metrics, such as fulfillment of customer satisfaction or experience objectives.

CSubs, which offers subscriptions, books, memberships and software licenses through a centralized single invoice, is an example of an organization that ties financial rewards to customer-satisfaction metrics. cSubs empowers its employees by providing encouragement and resources that make great customer service possible. While employees must follow a series of defined problem-solving steps before deviating from the norm to help customers, there are no rigid rules or procedures. They have the authority to think outside the box to create happy customers. The organization has identified 12 customer-centric behaviors that it wants all employees to model. The system attaches compensation to these positive behaviors, allowing employees to earn points toward $5,000 paid vacations from the company. According to cSubs President Julie Auslander, “Acknowledging, rewarding and celebrating our success in this way has been key to our growth. Employees appreciate that their efforts are recognized and rewarded and this, in turn, reinforces their commitment to making a difference for customers” (Self 2012).

Nonfinancial Rewards

In today’s business world, organizations need more than financial rewards to motivate employees and guide and control behaviors. Nonfinancial rewards, such as informal recognition programs, can be even more powerful at sustaining a customer-focused culture than compensation metrics alone (Hagen 2012).

Take, for example, FedEx. Founder Frederick W. Smith implemented the delivery service’s People-Service-Profit philosophy in 1975, the company’s third year of operation (Verasai 2016). Smith believed that taking proper care of employees wouldlead to better service to customers, which in turn would benefit the company by generating more revenues. FedEx has developed recognition programs that celebrate the achievements of employees and their commitment to delivering on the values of the company, including:

  • The Five Star Award, the highest honor at FedEx, which recognizes employees who have enhanced service and profitability and exemplified the spirit of teamwork and professionalism.
  • The Excellence Award, which recognizes employee leadership, creativity and distinguished effort in support of customers.
  • The Purple Promise Award, which recognizes employees who consistently deliver superior customer service to either external or internal customers.
  • The Bravo Zulu Award, derived from the U.S. Navy signal meaning well done, it recognizes employees for outstanding performance beyond normal job expectations.


Customer-focused organizations figure out how to combine values that the CVM proposes are competing. Clan and market cultures are two critical characteristics of customer-focused culture as both of these subcultures are prerequisites for instilling a successful customer-focused culture in an organization. In a customer-focused organization, most employees take responsibility for the customer when they are empowered to deliver ideas that are fresh, creative and add customer value. Empowerment gives employees more control over job-related situations and decisions, which allows them to have more flexibility and responsibility with respect to various customers’ needs (Kim, Moon, and Tikoo 2004).

In a customer-focused culture, employees are empowered and given opportunities to engage with customers to develop a deep understanding of what customers actually value, exhibiting attributes of clan culture along with behavior control supported by nonfinancial rewards (see Figure 3). Therefore, the more a customer-focused culture can guide employees, the less need there is to rely on traditional management controls such as rules, policies, procedures and direct oversight. Organizations with a customer-focused culture are externally oriented and competitive, have a longer-term perspective on profitability goals and their business decisions are supported by customer-centric metrics such as market share, growth and customer relations (Madhani 2018). A customer-focused culture also exhibits attributes of market culture along with outcome control supported by financial rewards., the online shoe and clothes retailer, illustrates how a competitive customer-focused culture can be built by empowering employees. Zappos doesn’t measure call times, up-sell, indulge in robotic behavior or use scripts, as the company views the cost of handling customers’ calls as an investment in marketing, not an expense. Call-center employees are allowed to decide which steps to take to make a customer happy. They are rated on quality of customer service, not on productivity metrics.

When Zappos hires employees, it provides the same four-week compulsory training that call-center reps take, regardless of department or title. Zappos also entices its new employees to quit, saying “If you quit today, we will pay you for the amount of time you’ve worked, plus we will offer you a bonus” (Taylor 2008). The offer started at $100 and has gradually increased to $3,000 (Hodge 2015). Zappos believes that the most productive employees work for the intrinsic rewards that come in helping others (Palmeri 2010). The company wants to ensure that employees aren’t focused only on the pay, but that they also believe in the company’s long-term vision and want to be a part of its culture (Hsieh 2010). Perks, as well as a comprehensive benefits package and wellness programs, are an integral part of Zappos’ everyday culture as management believes that if employees are happy, other challenges will be met. This helps its employees feel as if they are members of a large family (Warrick, Milliman, and Ferguson 2016).

Employees can earn Zollars (Zappos dollars) for participating in the required training by answering questions or volunteering to help out. Those Zollars can be spent at an onsite store, making rewards and recognition visible and real (Zappos 2012). This customer-based compensation system has helped produce customer retention — 75% of Zappos sales come from repeat customers who act as advocates for Zappos (Askin, Petriglieri, and Lockard 2016).


Designing an effective compensation and rewards system along with a supporting business strategy helps build a customer-focused culture. When compensation and rewards systems are not effectively designed, it may result in many unintended consequences. Unethical work practices by sales employees are much more likely in a strong market culture when factors, such as extreme emphasis on short-term goals, are supported by ineffective compensation and rewards plans. Such practices result in lower customer satisfaction, trust and loyalty because employees are tempted to take shortcuts and indulge in unethical methods, making it difficult to build a customer-focused culture. When compensation and rewards practices are not aligned with organization culture, it causes long-term performance deterioration.

The examples of Staples Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co. illustrate how divergence (low alignment) of organization culture and compensation/rewards systems can hurt a business. As shown in the “Sales Focus” quadrant of Figure 4, customer-focused culture is not built with a high emphasis on outcome-based control and financial rewards and therefore results in suboptimal results.

Staples Inc.

Staples, the U.S. office supply retailer, rewarded its salespeople for selling add-ons as a part of an incentive system called Market Basket. According to this outcome-based incentive scheme, each time a Staples employee sold a computer, that worker had to sell about $200 worth of other equipment to meet his or her target. Such a target-based reward policy resulted in a short-term focus for salespeople, leading to customer dissatisfaction, loss of customer trust and loyalty. In turn, it severely affected customer retention, as well as the company’s reputation (Madhani 2016).

Wells Fargo & Co.

In Wells Fargo’s fake account scandal, more than 2 million bank and credit card accounts were opened by employees during a five-year period without customer consent or authorization. The multinational financial-services institution’s compensation programs were highlighted as a major contributing factor for this widespread unethical behavior and illegal practices. CEO John Stumpf allowed the company to become overly sales oriented and incentives resulted in aggressive tactics to meet sales targets (Warrick 2017). In September 2016, Wells Fargo agreed to pay a $185 million fine assessed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and return $5 million in fees wrongly charged to customers (Zoltners, Lorimer, and Sinha 2016). Among the key changes made in light of the scandal were (Sheffield Barry 2017):

  1. A redesign of incentive plans to have a greater focus on customer outcomes.
  2. A new incentive compensation plan that removed product sales goals and replaced them with customer service, risk management and team performance measures.

It is important for top management to evaluate the performance management and rewards systems, as well as their own decisions, to ensure that they are aligned with the desired culture (Warrick 2017).

The following examples explain convergence (high alignment) of organizational culture and compensation/ rewards systems. As shown in the “Customer Focus” quadrant of Figure 4, customer-focused culture is supported by behavioral as well as outcome control and is strengthened by both financial and nonfinancial rewards.

Capital One Financial Corp.

The financial services company redesigned its compensation plan to support changes in the company culture that would allow call-center agents to be customer-focused and assist customers as needed. The previous monthly incentive payment plans rewarded call-center agents who followed a script. Such an outcome-based system sometimes restricted them from doing what was necessary to satisfy the needs of their customers. A new customer-focused culture, supported by a matching rewards system, empowered employees to focus on customers and emphasize customer advocacy, thereby enhancing the customer experience (Bloomberg BNA 2015). Subsequently, Capital One was recognized for customer service excellence under the J.D. Power and Associates Call Center Certification Program (J.D. Power 2012).

Fidelity Investments Inc.

Fidelity aligns rewards earned and measured with respect to customer-centric metrics to customer-focused goals in an effort to get everyone on the same page about their customer-experience goals. Perks encourage an employee to get experience that is correlated with customer experience, aligning rewards with organizational goals of customer focus. Fidelity sent selected employees to participate in its Customer Experience Ambassador’s program at the Disney Institute for three days, which included touring Disney to get a behind-the-scenes look at how it delivers its experiences (Hagen 2012).


Compensation and rewards systems promote employee behavior that ultimately becomes dominant in the organization. Such behavior influences employees’ perceptions and beliefs about the organization’s value systems. But it is vital to align the compensation and rewards strategy to support the attributes of a customer-focused culture. Compensation and rewards systems will positively influence behavior only if they are consistent with beliefs and expectations of the organization.

Organizational culture and compensation/rewards-system design function as complementary elements in directing employees toward achieving the strategic goals of the organization. Compensation and rewards systems represent a powerful tool for influencing an organization’s culture by influencing and controlling employee behavior. This research develops a causal relationship between rewards systems and customer-focused culture, identifies matching compensation and rewards systems for building a customer-focused culture, and proposes various supporting frameworks.


Pankaj M. Madhani, Ph.D.

Pankaj M. Madhani, Ph.D., earned bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering and law, and a master’s degree in business administration from Northern Illinois University, a master’s degree in computer science from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, and a Ph.D. in strategic management from CEPT University. He has more than 30 years of corporate and academic experience in India and the United States. Madhani works as associate dean and professor at ICFAI Business School (IBS). He has published several management books and more than 300 book chapters and research articles in various academic and practitioner journals. Madhani received the “Best Research Paper Award” at the 2016 International Management Convention. He is a frequent contributor to the WorldatWork Journal and has published more than 10 articles on compensation strategy. His main research areas include sales compensation, corporate governance and business strategy. He also serves as editor of the IUP Journal of Corporate Governance.


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