Three things we can learn from Patagonia’s customer culture

Home Three things we can learn from Patagonia’s customer culture

In the hopes of inspiring companies all over the world to make that transition into a bright and shiny diamond, I am planning to post some inspiring cases of companies that have amazing Customer Cultures in the coming weeks. This piece is about Patagonia’s fantastic customer culture.

Expand your circle of influence in a positive manner (while staying close to your core)

Organizations used to primarily act in their own business interest, to optimize results and improve market position. Developments within their industry were also closely followed, which they then tried to influence to their advantage. They also monitored global developments and assessed its impact on their bottom line. That was pretty much it.

But today, an increased number of companies also seek to operate in a way that makes financial sense while being socially and environmentally responsible. Their circle of influence is expanding to meet changing expectations – both from customers and employees – since a purely self-serving attitude or even neutrality of opinion (in difficult conversations like race, gender or wars) is no longer an option. Companies are now expected to act on all levels: their organization, their industry and the world.

Patagonia has been one of the true pioneers in this area. And the reason why they were so successful, was because doing good and adding value to society and the environment lies at the very core of their company. It was never an afterthought or a cheap marketing trick. Their purpose even reads “We’re in business to save our home planet”, which shows how serious they are about it. That’s why I always advise companies that want to invest in SDG and extend their circle of influence, to keep these  initiatives focused and close to their core and strategy, because they will very probably fail otherwise.

I absolutely love Patagonia’s Day After Tomorrow Mindset in the matter. Its founder Yvon Chouinard expects from his executives that they always consider the long-term impact of their choices “100 years from now”. Most of all, I admire their absolute positivity: though they see many problems they also see the potential to end them. Rather than fighting against someone or something (as a lot of “doing good” organizations still seem to be doing) they are fighting to savethe planet with positive intent and great products. That’s a great example of what I call the Top Gun Effect.

That combination of the positivity of the Top Gun Effect and the expanded circle of influence makes them a great example of a Bright Diamond.

Show don’t tell

Next to the top gun effect and the circle of influence, the “Believe” part is an important part of the Bright Diamond. Let me explain what I mean by that. Customer leaders in companies tend to say that the customer is the most important part of their company, but they do not act accordingly. The result is that their employees do not believe their commitment to the customer and therefore don’t put them first either, which is detrimental to the culture. Patagonia is perhaps a special case, because they put nature and society above everything else rather than the customer, but in the process they also treat their customers in the most ethical and congenial manner.

An important part of making employees “believe” at Patagonia is their unique feedback system. Rather than giving their employees feedback, managers ask for feedback in some sort of “be the change you want to see approach” which results in the employees doing the same. In the words of Dean Carter, Patagonia’s CHRO:

“We’ve learned that when you give someone unsolicited feedback, basically nothing happens. But if you request feedback, the person you request it from is more likely to request feedback themselves. They’re likely to request feedback from three other people.”

 “At town halls, I ask the question, ‘How many of you have gotten feedback in the last week?’ and 70 percent of the room will raise their hands. Then I say, ‘How many of you have changed your behavior this past week as a result of feedback you received?’ And 70 percent of the people will raise their hands. That’s pretty incredible.”

 But the best way to make employees believe that their leaders are truly committed to nature (and indirectly to the customer) is their multiple actions to benefit the latter, especially in case of opposing interests. Most companies grab Black Friday’s opportunity with both hands, for instance, to sell more products and make more profit, but Patagonia launched their famous campaign “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” It explained the environmental impact of producing their best-selling jacket and invited customers to consider if they really needed it before making the purchase. This is what I meant that nature’s best interest and the customer’s best interest often coincide: pushy campaigns like Black Friday that inspire people to buy things they really don’t need are not in the best interest of the consumer either, right?

Another example of choosing for the customer in case of seemingly opposing interests is how Patagonia’s products come with a lifetime guarantee and how it encourages customers to repair old items rather than replace them. Most apparel companies rejoice when clothing has become unusable and the customer has to buy a new item. Patagonia has the largest clothing repair facility in North America and a truck that travels the United States repairing clothing. The best part is that you can even submit clothing that was not made by them.

There are so many examples to give here. It only takes on new corporate clients if that company has robust sustainability plans. It has pledged 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. And recently, Patagonia was even converted into a non-profit organization to make their already positive impact on the climate even greater. To be clear: this decision does not change the way the company is run. Patagonia will continue to market beautiful, sporty and sustainable clothing and try to do so as successfully as possible. What has changed is the structure of the company, ownership and voting rights being the most important transformations.

This is how you make your employees believe in your purpose, in your commitment to nature and customer: by acting, and going beyond words and intentions.

Empower your employees

When I want to understand if a company has a solid customer culture, I ask them questions like “how much responsibility do you delegate to your employees for keeping customers happy?” or “How far are they allowed to go before they have to ask the boss’s permission?”. Customers can’t be truly at the heart of a company if employees in direct contact with them are not empowered to act fast and committedly in their interest.

At Patagonia, managers are there to provide strategy, context and resources. They share how things work and the direction they’re headed in. But it’s 100% up to teams and individuals to get work done. I love the Patagonia concept of “the mountain” here, a metaphor to describe a challenge that the company wants to tackle. The leaders have a long-term vision, they pick the mountain, and then motivate people to conquer it. But once that mountain has been defined, people have the absolute freedom to determine how they will conquer it.

The beautiful part is that their culture encourages everyone to speak up and challenge what’s happening. And yes, there is enough psychological safety that even “mountains” can be challenged. Employees are trusted as much with ideas as they are with customers.

For more examples about companies with great customer cultures, check my new book A Diamond in the Rough.