Evolving Industry:

A no BS podcast about business leaders who are successfully weaving technology into their company DNA to forge a better path forward

Customer-First Culture: Align Priorities That Manifest Loyalty

George Jagodzinski (00:00):

My guest today spent over 12 years at Amazon building amazing digital experiences, some of them from a complete blank canvas. One example is the Treasure Truck, which is pretty cool. She now works at Chewy on their loyalty product. If you aren't aware, Chewy has one of the best loyalty programs out there. We discuss customer-led culture and how it can be the great equalizer across product, technology, and business. We explore what it takes to get a new product off the ground, not easy, and do it without leaving a trail of bodies and burned bridges behind you. We also talk about competing priorities and the simplification of vision. It was a lot of fun. Please, welcome Remya Narayanaswami.


Welcome to Evolving Industry, a no-BS podcast about business leaders who are successfully weaving technology into their company's DNA to forge a better path forward. If you're looking to actually move the ball forward rather than spinning around in a tornado of buzzwords, you're in the right place. I'm your host, George Jagodzinksi.


Remya, thank you so much for joining me.

Remya Narayanaswami (01:14):

Thank you for having me. I'm glad to be here.

George Jagodzinksi (01:17):

I'm really excited to talk to you. Last we spoke, I just loved hearing all the various experiences you've had, and they're very, very interesting. One that I wanted to start with is there are many different types of cultures. There are many nuances to different types of cultures. You've been in some very different ones and I'd love to explore what is the big difference between a product-led culture and a tech-led culture, and what do you see as some of those pros and cons and experiences that you've had?

Remya Narayanaswami (01:46):

I would say there isn't a big difference. I think it depends on where the company is really focused on or an organization is really focused on. A lot of times, companies that consider themselves or are known for tech-led culture, it just means that they are in the technology space and the advanced technology space, and they use that as an advantage to themselves for their growth and for their evolution, and that's where they kind of have an upper hand. Typically, what that translates to is your technology leaders have a higher influence, for example, or the engineers are making the decisions, or they get to decide what is higher priority. And I think there are some organizations and cultures where that's what a technology-led culture sort of translates to. In the ideal world, companies that use technology to their advantage for their growth to address their customer problems, that kind of this kind of should be considered as a technology-led culture.


See, product-led is very closely tied to technology, but it's a little bit of like, do you develop the technology first, or do you define the product opportunity or the customer problem first? And I don't think there is a very clear this is the way to go. I think it can be either ways. I would say companies where... And I usually like to put together product and technology together, and then you'd have companies where it is a very business or revenue-focused culture. So your product and technology are enablers, but your primary thing that you sell are products that customers buy. So for example, if you are a Starbucks, you're selling coffee, that's the thing that really matters, I mean, coffee and other things. And whereas your technology team is enabling everything that is helping you sell the coffee to customers, whether that's the digital app or whether that's the point of sale application.


And so, similarly, Airbnb is another example where their app and all that technology product ecosystem, the software product ecosystem is an enabler to help tenants lease apartments or houses or rooms or whatnot. And I think in this instance where the business, it's a business-led culture typically, again, what it means is that how you orient yourself towards the problem and how do you start with the point of view of revenue generation, profit generation, and how does that translate into what individual teams own and run with. I would say, at the end of the day, I'm biased because of my background at Amazon, as well as now at Chewy, I think it should be customer-led culture. Start with the customer always, identify what the customer problem is, identify what your solutions are, and then use all your cultures, teams, your org structure to your advantage to go solve customer problems or customer opportunities.


So I think... And many companies are already doing this. Both the companies that I've worked for or currently working on, they always think of customer-first. And so, start working backwards from the customer and whether it is the technology that's going to solve the problem or is if it is smart pricing that's going to solve the problem, or if it is something else, some partnership that's going to solve the problem, go figure out what you need to do to solve a customer problem or serve a customer in need or an opportunity. So I think we should rephrase, everybody, I think, should rephrase themselves as a customer-first culture rather than a business-led or technology-led culture.

George Jagodzinksi (06:11):

I couldn't agree more. And that's the great neutralizing leveler across the organization as well because I know the pitfalls I've always seen is that whether you're product-led or technology-led, what ends up happening is egos get out of control and, all of a sudden, the product designers, the god amongst the organization, and everything they say is right, or the technology leaders say, "Hey, unless the technology is perfect, everything else you guys are doing is useless," and that's no good for anyone. And if you just have that reminder of, hey, everyone get their egos in check, we're here for the customer, then that really balances things out. I love that.

Remya Narayanaswami (06:49):

Yeah. Something that I always have, I used to have this written down on my desk, which is collaborate with a growth mindset and without ego. That's just what you said right now, which is, it's just so important that when you're coming together, and we can get more into this later on, but as you approach a goal or an objective or a problem, there is... and once you get to a certain level, there is no individual group or team or person that can solve the problem. It has to be multiple functions coming together. And when you are in that scenario, you have to learn to collaborate without ego, take feedback with a growth mindset, and that's what will allow you to make faster decisions and allow you to get something out to your customers, and serve their need faster.

George Jagodzinksi (07:46):

Yeah. I've seen this one common pitfall in product-led cultures, and I'd love to kind of explore this a little bit, is there's an initiative to fix the back office systems, service support, financials, all of that, because ultimately, that does impact the customer's experience. But usually, there's some point of that roadmap where in order to make it all work together, you've got to get some items on the product roadmap. And product, they'll push back and say, we don't have any room on our roadmap for that because we're just obsessed with our product, and that's the only thing that matters. And then something that should have taken six months is now a years-long initiative that's never getting prioritized, and all the while, the customer has a horrible experience. And so, I'm curious if you've seen that in any ways to break out of that pattern and get the priorities realigned.

Remya Narayanaswami (08:41):

Yeah, no, that's very common pitfall, as you mentioned. Typically, what these start off as is what we call as paper cuts. So a little bit of an issue here. For example, supply chain is not optimized, or we have some inventory issues, and packaging is off, and there are small problems. And to your point, the product team might be like, oh, yeah, we'll get to it, but right now, the most important thing is get as many of these out to customers, sell as many, hit our revenue targets, and then these small problems now collectively, they start manifesting as bigger problems. And in the worst-case scenario, you could end up with something like a recall. And so, I know this is kind of a bit, I don't know if it's too soon to bring this up, but the whole Boeing scenario that just happened, I'm sure they're inspecting, and as they go deeper and deeper, it's probably a few things here and there that they cut the corners, compromise and then it manifested into this big problem.


And I think the key is that here's where I have sort of seen success in sort of balancing that, okay, we want to keep growing, we want to keep growing our top line, but at the same time, address all of these paper cuts that we come across, which is there are pretty straightforward frameworks you can use. You can say, okay, if you have X percent of resources to build products, fix your back office issues, then you kind of say, okay, we are going to spend 70% of our resources to achieve our top line goals. We're going to spend 30% of our resources to address all of our paper cuts. How do you prioritize what your paper cuts are? And this is where you obviously need to look at which ones of these could become a trustbuster. A simple framework to use is anything that's a trustbuster is always priority zero. That's the first one that you address.

George Jagodzinksi (10:47):


Remya Narayanaswami (10:48):

And it's not just whether it's a trustbuster right now, but can it be a trustbuster in the future? An example could be, and this happens more often than you would think it would happen, but a product that is being sold with one retailer, let's say, it's selling at $10. And then, you're listing the same product in another retailer, and it's like $9.50. Customers don't like that. And so, they want consistency. And this could just be because, in the backend, you're using different spreadsheets that are not talking to each other, but it could manifest into a big trust issue if not a PR nightmare. So those are the ones that you always... trustbusters always take priority over anything else. And I'm sure I don't have to repeat this, but once you lose customer trust... It's very easy to lose customer trust, very, very hard to earn it back.


So that goes high up in priority. And then you can decide your prioritization based on the impact. So, for example, if your goal, and when I say your goal, I mean either your organization's goal, your enterprise-wide goal is revenue growth, then you prioritize all of your initiatives based on what's going to have the highest impact on your revenue growth. And so, you can very much align all your initiatives to one particular goal. But the conflict is when you have a revenue goal and then you have, let's say, a quality goal or a bottom line goal, a profit goal. And in these scenarios, teams can develop mechanisms to help understand and make prioritization trade-offs if there is clarity from leadership on what is the enterprise-wide goal, or if your organization kind of reports at the VP level, what is the VP's highest priority. And that needs to be very, very clear.


And typically, there is also a life cycle that goes through. If you just launched a new product or a new service or you're a new company, you can definitely prioritize customer acquisition goals and revenue goals. But once you get to a certain stage of maturity, you do have to move multiple goals in parallel. However, then yes, you can move multiple goals in parallel, but there is a limit to how many you can. Even if you are a large mature organization with hundreds of thousands of people, you still have to decide what are your top three to five priorities. And so, that then the rest of the organization can sort of rally behind those priorities. And that's how you can move the needle on those. So if you, again, as the leader, you're setting the goal of, let's just assume that quality and revenue are your top two goals, you have to set a framework that'll allow the teams to then make trade-off decisions and push comes to shove, what's more important.


And there are ways to do this in a very quantifiable you can, as I said, you can come up with a framework on how you would assess impact or analyze impact to drive each of these goals, and then you can sort of quantify that. Or you can also have mechanisms where you not just look at the quantified impact, but also some of the qualitative or subjective impact. And this is what I meant by PR concerns or trustbuster issues. And so, you kind of have to identify what's right for you. But the most important ones, I would say, is clarity in the prioritization of the goals themselves, which will then translate into individual initiatives on how do you allocate your resources.

George Jagodzinksi (14:46):

Evolving Industry is brought to you by Intevity. We bring order to chaos wherever people, process, and technology converge. Our culture drives our solutions, and we are solution-obsessed. We see every challenge as an opportunity, every partner as a collaborator, and every project has a chance to share our values and commitment to excellence. Give us a shout. We'd love to hear your challenges and turn them into opportunities. Find out more at intevity.com. Now, back to the show.


That's great. Man, that clarity is sometimes easier said than done, especially in changing environments. But where we see it really successful is making that clarity and that vision portable. And when we say portable, that's that people can take it through the hallways with them, and they really understand it, and they can hand it off to someone else in any given moment of a conversation.

Remya Narayanaswami (15:37):

I used to -

George Jagodzinksi (15:39):

I really loved your idea of essentially a paper-cut budget. There's a lot of times where we see there's a run the business budget and a grow the business budget, but in between there, if you're missing that paper cut budget, then that's really where you get into trouble. And I think the balancing act too is your paper-cut budget can't be a Band-Aid budget. You need to be able to fix those things the right way rather than just death by a thousand Band-Aids as you grow.

Remya Narayanaswami (16:06):

Exactly. And one of the most important things... And by the way, if you're sitting at the super high level, if you're a VP or even a CEO, you're not going to be able to identify or understand your paper cuts. You need to empower your teams to bring that up and to surface that. And for that, the leadership of any organization needs to develop a culture that would allow the folks who are closest to these paper cuts to surface them at the right level and be able to walk leadership through, hey, here's the consequences of if we don't understand this. If you don't develop that culture, then yeah, as I said, it can become 1... 10 different paper cuts can become this big blown-up issue.


That's one of the pitfalls that I've seen why paper cuts do end up blowing up because there isn't a culture where these are highlighted or brought up enough number of times to drive even the awareness. And that's why typically people at the top, they are not aware of it because they're not aware of it, they can't be aware of it, and it's not the fault that they're not aware of it, the mistake they did is they didn't set the culture or empower the people to get themselves be educated on those kind of issues.

George Jagodzinksi (17:30):

That's great. Yeah, it's funny. You see these things in the news, and some people will say, how could this happen? And I think you and I and probably a bunch of people out there are like, oh, I know exactly how that happened.

Remya Narayanaswami (17:41):

Yeah, I think a few years ago, there was a financial services institution where I think the whole issue was they were creating customer accounts which are without the customer's permission. And if you just think through that problem... And I think the CEO was asked to testify. Of course, the CEO did not know because the CEO probably created a goal that said, we need so many millions of new customers this year, and left it at that and left it to the teams to decide how they're going to acquire that. And so, the teams are now somehow motivated, or their goal is to just create customer accounts, and they found a loophole to do that and achieve their goals, but the spirit of the goal is lost, and there was no, again, mechanisms or a culture that would have prevented this from happening.

George Jagodzinksi (18:31):

That's great. It is funny when you first said that about CEOs. My initial reaction, and this might be my control issues, was, “Oh, but I want to know what all the paper cuts are.” But obviously, I know that that's the wrong approach and that you're right. I mean, really empowering the team and giving them the space and the budget to, as they see the paper cuts, address them is really the way to go. I love that. So Remya, I'd love to switch gears a little bit to blank, getting something off the ground, building a digital experience from a blank canvas. You've done this. It's hard to get things off of the ground. And I'd love to hear a little bit of your philosophy on how do you do that. How do you figure... You talked about trust earlier. You got to build that trust internally as well. Just curious, your philosophy.

Remya Narayanaswami (19:16):

It's hard, but it's actually a lot of fun, at least for me, and that's why I've done this over and over again. The typical approach and this is where actually some of these, the tech-led, the business-led, product-led culture, it actually is not a problem initially. When you go from zero to one, it is one of those, I would say, it's a honeymoon period where all teams actually come together to solve that one problem because you really need a product or a service to get it out the door to get your first set of customers. And typically in this phase, the early phase, depending on what you are launching, whether it is a digital product, whether it is a service, whether it is a hardware product, and in all these scenarios, usually it's the technology team that drives to get you to that zero to one stage.


And that's because, again, fundamentally, you need to have something. Even if you are selling a service in these days and ages, it is still... You might be running a salon or a spa or whatever. It's a service, you're essentially selling a service, but how are customers finding out about you? It's usually online. So there is... I think we have gone to that phase in our social evolution where pretty much everything is digital first. And so, in that zero-to-one phase, when you talk about trade-off decisions or priorities, usually it is very much focused on what is that MVP, minimum viable product or, in some instances, it's called minimum lovable product. So what is that most compelling? What is the minimum number of things that you can build into your product that will feel compelling and attractive to your first set of customers? And usually, these are your early adopters.


And so, the reason it's called minimum viable product is you only want to build enough to get those early adopters, and once you get those early adopters, you can actually learn from your customers and then decide what you built on top of that. And so, even if it is a product, like kitchen utensils, that you're selling, there are always going to be early adopters to that. And then once they use, and they use your product for a while, they're going to give you feedback, and then you improve on your product, and then you try to get the product compelling for your mass market adopters, so that's kind of the next evolution of growth. But yeah, going back to the zero-to-one, the toughest challenge for zero-to-one is usually you start from blue sky. There's nothing on paper, you have to define what you're going to build, and that is usually the toughest one.


And a lot of customer research goes into it, a lot of insights, a lot of collaborations and partnership with either your own internal teams or it could be even outside partners and vendors. And so, getting something from... I'll give you an example. I used to run this program called Treasure Truck at Amazon. It started off with this idea of we want to have an ice cream truck for grownups. What does that look like? And then going from there to this experience of like, okay, there is an actual physical truck that goes around, but there is a digital companion to that where customers can find out what's in the truck on any given day, get excited about it, place an order, then actually come to the truck to pick it up. And so to get from that one sentence of what does an ice cream truck for adults look like? And then coming up with this entire vision.


So I think I would say that early stage of clarifying what we need to do, that's the first step. And then getting buy-in from a set of folks, either internal or external that this is what we need to do. And I think that pieces can be quite challenging. The challenging part here is, I mean, if you have clarity on what you want to do, you write it down. Some people do detailed memos, documents like how we used to do at Amazon and now at Chewy. Other companies do PowerPoint presentations. But regardless of the format of how you want to convey what you want to do, you always have to remember that people, the audience who are reviewing what you want to do, have their own perspectives on what this should be. And typically at this stage, you don't have a lot of data to go off of.


So there's a lot of judgment involved, and it is upon... If you are the person who is kind of owning, setting this vision, you're going to get a ton of inputs. And for me, the thing that I had to learn really well is everyone, when they provide input, it's best intentions. No one's trying to distract you. No one's trying to throw you off your game. It's best intentions. However, not every input is equally valuable. So being able to sort of filter out the ones that are like, okay, those are interesting ideas, but the ones that are actually... this input is very critical to the success of your product, or you sell is what are we launching? Being able to remove, filter out the ones that are thoughts, opinions, and the ones that are actually critical to the success of your product, I think that is probably the hardest skill to develop when you're going from zero to one.


And again, as I said, most people are providing inputs, opinions, judgment with best intentions because they genuinely believe, especially if it's contradicting what you are proposing, and they're doing that because they genuinely believe that that is the right way of doing it. And once you identify what are the true inputs that you want to incorporate and actually leave out the ones that you don't want to, you still have to articulate that and bring them all along in your thinking such that once again, we can all be this... you want to come together as a team behind this vision, and you can't achieve that. You can't be one team unless you actually are able to influence others' thought process and make sure that they understand why you included some input and why you did not include some of the input.


So these are... I would say if something takes about a year to get off the ground, you're spending about your first six to eight months doing these set of activities. Once you know what you want to build, then your engineers and your business development partners and your sales team, and everyone's going to come together because, at that point, there is clarity in what you need to do, and it's just a matter of execution. But it is bringing everyone aligned on the thinking. That is the most challenging part.

George Jagodzinksi (26:19):

It sure is. And you're dealing with humans, and humans, they don't want to be left out, and they want to be heard. And I like what you said as far as it sounds like you have an approach to make sure that they're at least heard and they understand why it's not in there. What I've always find amusing is anytime I come across one of these blank canvas things that people get excited about, there's inevitably some point where there's going to be a workshop, and the attendee list to the workshop all of a sudden blows up to this incredibly large number because everyone's peeking around the hallway like, "Oh, what's that cool thing you're working on over there? I want to be involved in that." It's that, or it's, "Hey, is this going to turn into a mess that I need to clean up later? I better get involved now."


Yeah. I find just taking a scalpel to that attendee list and saying, okay, who really has sign off and authority here versus someone that just has nice to have information that they're going to provide? It can be tough though, taking that scalpel. It's like a wedding list.

Remya Narayanaswami (27:18):

Yeah, there is a standard sort of framework that you use for these. It's called a racy list, who's responsible, who's accountable, who's consulted, who's informed? And so, if you are a large organization, especially a matrix organization, sort of identifying each stakeholder or partner, where do they fall, and actually sharing that with them. And I am a big believer in transparent communication. Again, we talked about earning trust or losing trust of customers, but it's equally important to make sure you earn trust of your internal partners and your collaborators, and your team members. And so, a transparent open communication is very, very important. And to your point, there is the cool thing happening. In fact, one of the projects that I worked on, we actually had a locked door because it was so secretive. And so, only those who have the permission or the key code can actually get in and see what's happening.


But then, to your point, if your team is impacted by this new cool thing, but you have no idea what that is, you're going to get nervous. And so, it's important the person who's responsible or owns this new initiative that they either share the right set of information with everyone else or understand. If it's a secretive project, you may not be able to share what it is, so understand what their concerns are and either make sure you proactively address them or at least let them know that, “Hey, I heard you, and I'm going to make sure that when it is the right time for you to know what this program or project is about, that your feedback's already been incorporated.” So it's very important to, as I said, to hear them out. Make sure that you don't drop a bomb on them when you're ready to go.


And that's, again, a common pitfall because a lot of these cool new projects are usually top-down or there's a lot of senior leadership interest, and then many companies and organizations, you kind of get your rate, because it is the most important thing that the company is doing that particular year, they get all the resources that they need. And so, it is very common for that to happen, and all of the other stakeholders feel left out, or they feel like they have to pick up all the mess that you left behind. And for people who are in these cool new projects, it's important to remember six months after you launch, you're no longer the cool project, and you have to still work with all of these people. And so, you better not burn those bridges just because you got the opportunity to work on a cool new project.

George Jagodzinksi (30:00):

That's a really good point. Yeah, that locked door makes it that much more exciting for others as well. But man, yeah, the not burning bridges thing is so critical to keep top of mind on that one.

Remya Narayanaswami (30:10):

Yeah. And I'm also a big believer, as I said, maintaining that transparent, open communication. And I have... Even an instances where you are just hearing them out, what are their concerns, it actually does help you inform the direction of what you're trying to do. That entire conversation may not be directly applicable to what you're trying to accomplish, but there are always these nuggets, and those are very, very important because there is no other way to get that information unless you're having the conversation with that particular person or that particular team. And so, as I said, I always start from a place of trust, and I always believe that everyone has best intentions. They may not have the best ways or the mechanisms, but that's secondary. If they have the best intentions, it's on you to kind of understand what their inputs are, and then you can probably help create the right mechanisms as well.

George Jagodzinksi (31:08):

Couldn't agree more. I always love going through the process of divergent and then convergent thinking. And during that divergent process, that's when it's like, give me all the ideas, but just know we're going to be going through a convergent phase here because we can't just have a thousand different ideas all at once. Yeah.

Remya Narayanaswami (31:24):

Yeah, exactly. And that's another pitfall as well. We talked earlier about different teams or departments within the company having different priorities and power struggles and all of that. One of the reasons why that happens is because a company or an organization, or a unit has too many priorities. If you have 12 priorities, no company has the resources to accomplish 12 priorities in a single year. And it becomes very apparent very quickly in the planning cycle that we don't have the resources to accomplish all of those 12, then it becomes a bit of a power struggle, and this is where leaders really have to step in and say, oh, no, we are going to focus on these.

George Jagodzinksi (32:09):

I love that. I always like to, in setting goals, imagine yourself a year from now and what really needed to get done looking backwards, and that helps whittle down those items. Remya, I really love hearing your stories, I could hear them all day. I always like to finish these with a fun question, which is, in life, in your career, wherever, what's the best advice you've ever received?

Remya Narayanaswami (32:32):

Be true to yourself. It is something that I have re-examined myself multiple times in the context of what I want to accomplish. And this kind of comes back to both the culture, the company culture that we talked about, but also who I am as an individual. There have been instances in my career where I disagreed with how my leadership thought about and even I would say what their morals were that did not align with mine. And I knew that if I could adapt to them, I would probably grow faster, but I have chosen not to do that. At every stage in my life and my career, when I had to make a decision of this doesn't seem like too much, deviating from how I would be as a person. It's just a small change. If I can do that, I can get this promotion. And I've sort of never actually made that and always stuck to myself, been true to myself.


And I'm like, you know what? This is not me. I couldn't justify this. Maybe I'll get the promotion, but if I am trying to go to an interview and I'm trying to justify why I did that, I couldn't, other than saying I wanted that short-term promotion. And so, I think it's very, very important. And I also... And this is something, obviously, I teach my kids and whenever I have to make a tough decision and all through my career, all through my life, right from which college I want to go, to who I want to marry, to where I want to work, it's all about being true to yourself. And I know people talk about, there are people who make decisions with their heart and their brain or their head. I actually don't think there's a huge difference between the two if you are, again, being true to yourself and being honest with yourself. And so I feel like that's kind of sort of the guiding philosophy that I have.

George Jagodzinksi (34:36):

I love it. That's a good one. Oh, Billy Shakespeare's Hamlet, still fundamentally relevant today. Fantastic.

Remya Narayanaswami (34:43):

Yeah, absolutely.

George Jagodzinksi (34:45):

Remya, thank you very much.

Remya Narayanaswami (34:46):

Thank you for the opportunity, George.

George Jagodzinksi (34:49):

Thanks for listening to Evolving Industry. For more, subscribe and follow us on your favorite podcast platform, and, pretty please, drop us a review. We'd really appreciate it. If you're watching or listening on YouTube, hit that subscribe button and smash the bell button for notifications. If you know someone who's pushing the limits to evolve their business, reach out to the show at evolvingindustry@intevity.com, or reach out to me, George Jagodzinksi on LinkedIn. I love speaking with people getting the hard work done. The business environment's always changing, and you're either keeping up or going extinct. We'll catch you next time, and until then, keep evolving.