Article

What customer first really means

Customer first means business success. Here's how.

By Jeannie Walters, Founder and Chief Experience Officer of Experience Investigators, @jeanniecw

Published February 14, 2022
Last updated February 14, 2022

It’s easy to talk about being a customer-first organisation. It’s comforting to think that everyone in the organisation puts the customer first. This attitude should, in theory, lead to happier customers, better business outcomes and the type of place anyone would love to work. But defining and executing a customer-first strategy is not as organic as it might seem. Leaders first need to define the strategy, understand what success looks like and look for ways to not only deliver a customer-first experience today, but also set up for tomorrow.

What is a customer-first strategy?

In short, a customer-first strategy is just what it sounds like. Instead of organising around products, the organisation puts the customer at the centre of organisational decision-making. This means seeking ways to consistently and proactively deliver a positive customer experience by designing and delivering with the customer in mind. A customer-first mindset is closely related to purpose-driven thinking. The customer, their experience, and emotional attachment to the company become part of the company’s purpose. What customers do with their products, the experiences they have at any point along the customer journey and how they feel drive the employees of a customer-first organisation. It’s really about doing the right thing for the customer and ensuring everyone in the organisation has the mindset to do so. Many of the disrupters of the last decade – including Uber, Airbnb and Warby Parker – can be classified as customer-first organisations. Instead of designing the customer journey around product creation and delivery, their organisation was based on improving the customer experience. They disrupted entire industries by understanding their customer and their needs. In doing so, they also became highly profitable and successful businesses.

Customer first means business success

When executed well, customer-first strategies also deliver better results for the organisation. Customers who have great experiences spend more, stay longer and tell more people about their experiences. This leads to increased loyalty, repeat purchases and referrals. Consider Japanese retailer Uniqlo, which reported increased revenue and profit in 2021. Its success is partly due to its customer-first mindset. Uniqlo is guided by CEO Tadashi Yanai’s first principle: “Meet customer needs and create new customers.” He emphasises that this is done a little at a time – and not a “one-and-done” idea. Research also shows that being customer first can improve the bottom line – 87% of customers report that a good customer service experience would change their behaviour as customers. According to the Zendesk study, “87% reveal that their experience actually changed future buying behaviour, from recommending products or services to other people (67%) to purchasing or using more products and services from that company (54%) to considering purchasing or using more from that company (39%).”

87% of customers report that a good customer service experience would change their behaviour as customers.

Being a customer first can help businesses retain top talent and create a better employee experience too. According to research by SurveyMonkey, employees reported a clear connection between finding their work meaningful and ideas like customer empathy, knowing their work has a large impact on customers and seeing customer satisfaction as a key priority to their organisation. These customer-first ideas drive employee behaviours that also serve the customer. There are many ways positive customer experiences drive revenue, growth and loyalty.

How to become a customer-first organisation

Being customer first means investing in and executing a strong customer experience management strategy. To do that, ensure these three things are happening at your organisation.

1. Know who you are to your customer

The best companies don’t focus on products – they focus on what they help their customers do with those products or services. IKEA, the furniture brand, focuses on a vision: “To create a better everyday life for the many people.” This helps them see beyond selling products and focus on what customers can feel and achieve with their products.

2. Know your customers

It’s not enough to know their buying needs. It’s important to know who they are – what their challenges, goals and emotions are. Developing personas and collaborating with customers is a great way to keep customers top-of-mind throughout the organisation. Co-creating with customers can help avoid service issues by inviting customers to design experiences with you proactively. Of course, listening to customers with an ongoing Voice of the Customer (VoC) programme is another way to stay connected to their experiences. Integrate customer feedback into your organisation’s work cycles so teams take actions to address customer issues and close the loop with the customer.

3. Deliver proactive customer experiences

Gartner reports that proactive customer service is desperately needed to meet customer demands. However, only 13% of customers reported receiving proactive service. Delivering a proactive experience could be a competitive advantage. The only way to be proactive is to understand your customers and put them first in your decision-making process.

4. Know what success looks like

It’s never enough to say “we’re customer first!” Leaders throughout the organisation need to understand and deliver on customer-centric outcomes. This means defining success by tying customer experience metrics to organisational goals. We recommend a Customer Experience Success Statement, which can help leaders see how focusing on the customer benefits the entire organisation. Of course, if being customer first is a mindset and a strategy, that means every employee needs to be on board. This all comes down to culture.

Creating a culture of customer-first

Customer-first cultures are purpose-driven and cultivate accountability and action on behalf of customers. They are set up to attract, hire and engage employees who want to deliver on that purpose and put customers first. This is all driven by their vision, which is used and circulated widely in the organisation. Delivering on a customer-first approach means giving employees the tools, technology and resources they need to personalise the customer experience. To achieve this, organisations must bring customer data together in a Customer Data Platform (CDP) that’s visible and accessible to all employees. To be customer first means providing each employee with the right information, in the right way, at the right moment so they can best serve the customer. Centralising customer data means their service interactions, for example, are not separate from their purchase history. Customer service agents are now working across channels, so they need to be able to see the customer’s journey from any of those places. (According to Zendesk’s Customer Experience Trends Report, the number of so-called “blended agents” has increased by 30% compared to last year.) Employees need to understand where the customer is on their journey and recognise who they are and where they are. Leaders must guide the way, but each employee must see how their role directly impacts the customer experience.

Not quite customer first? It’s OK to start today.

Becoming a customer-first organisation means building (or revamping) a strong foundation. Ask if your organisation focuses on the customer and what actions it takes to deliver on that focus.

  • Is the customer experience mission (or organisational vision) strong and clear, so every employee sees beyond the product?
  • Is proactive customer experience prioritised and understood as part of the organisation’s success?
  • Is customer data centralised and visible so employees can deliver personalised and meaningful experiences, no matter what channel or where the customer is on their journey?
  • Does every employee see their role as directly impacting a positive customer experience?
  • Is the customer known and recognised for who they are, not just what they buy?
  • There are ways you can create positive change in your organisation, even if you haven't checked everything off this list. Start where you can and focus on customers first. Your organisation and your customers will thank you.

    About Jeannie Walters

    For more than 20 years, Jeannie Walters has been dedicated to creating meaningful moments and real results. As the Founder and Chief Experience Officer of Experience Investigators, Jeannie has helped organisations – from small businesses to Fortune 500s like Verizon and Allstate – “To Create Fewer Ruined Days for Customers™”.

    She is a TEDx speaker, a founding member of CXPA, co-host of the top-rated Crack the Customer Code podcast and a four-time LinkedIn Learning instructor whose courses have been watched by more than 200,000 online learners.

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