Some brands want to create a fun culture; others innovative; others exclusive, and while many brands will say they’ve created a customer-centric culture, there are only a select number whose customers would agree. According to IBM, 80% of companies believe they deliver “superior” customer service, but only 8% of customers say that’s true.

Given, it’s not easy to create a customer-centric culture, because not only does it require an all-in internal effort; it requires an exceptional external effort, as well. But culture can be a corporate game-changer. According to a new Booz & Company culture and change management survey of more than 2,000 executives, managers and employees, 86% of C-suite executives and 84% of all managers and employees say culture is critical to their organization’s success; and 60% see it as a bigger success factor than either their strategy or their operating model.

So what does it take to create a great corporate culture (customer-centric or otherwise)? Here are three key factors:

1. Employee Engagement: If you don’t get employee buy-in, selling your company’s culture to your customers is going to be a tough row to hoe. Employees from the top, and especially those at the bottom, need something to believe in to fully embrace and espouse the core values of the company for which they work. In fact, 70% of respondents who said change efforts at their companies were adopted and sustained said their companies leveraged employees’ pride in the organization and emotional commitment.

Companies must find ways to connect with each member of their team and also give them a feeling that they’re a contributing part of something bigger than themselves. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh cites four factors that are involved in getting employees involved, and happy to be participating in a company and its culture:

  • Perceived Control
  • Perceived Progress
  • Connectedness
  • and a Belief in the Company’s Vision or Meaning

“We’re not out there telling people [that they should adopt the Zappos values] and culture,” says Hsieh, “because that would actually probably not work in most cases. Our message is more ‘you should figure out what your values are and then align the entire organization around them.’”

Zappos’ core values such as “create a little fun and weirdness,” as well as “be adventurous, creative and open-minded” celebrate individuality, which also contributes to perceived control, which contributes to brand and culture buy-in.

2. Small Change: One of the fastest ways to put the brakes on any culture initiative is actually through a major change. In the Booz & Company Culture’s Role in Enabling Organization Change study, 65% of respondents cited “change fatigue” (when workers are asked to adapt to too many changes at once) as the main obstacle to change itself.

Large and many changes can actually lead to uncertainty about the company and confusion about its and the individual employee’s priorities, notes the survey, so the best route is to take the company’s existing positive attributes and use that as a foundation.

For Zappos, creating their customer-centric culture starts with first, hiring the right people, and then numerous weeks of training to get them acclimated with the brand and its beliefs. Every new Zappos employee learns the company strategy, the culture and why it’s important, as well as the Zappos customer service philosophy. They also spend two weeks in the call center to see if they really do care about delivering great customer service.

At some point, they’re even offered payment to walk away from the company. Hsieh says they don’t want people there for just a paycheck; they want people who are passionate and will remain so about what the company is doing.

3. Consistency is Key: Managing and continuing to make a burgeoning culture a top priority is where a lot of brands lose their necessary momentum. Even brands like Starbucks, known for its customer experience, can attest to this. (Read Starbucks on Creating an Adaptive Customer Experience Culture.) Maintaining a corporate culture takes work and commitment.

Less than half of the Booz & Co. survey participants said their companies consistently did a good job of managing culture and making it a priority. What really brings cultural progress to a halt is what Booz & Co. calls “the boomerang effect,” when leadership stops being actively involved and moves on to other priorities.

This is a key reason why Zappos and its CEO Tony Hsieh have successfully risen to the top of the customer culture elite: pure stick-to-itiveness. “Our number one priority is company culture,” says Hsieh. “Our whole belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand will just happen naturally on its own.

“Zappos is a customer service company that just happens to sell shoes.”