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Article 9 min read

Customer orientation: definition, examples & skills

Customer orientation is a business philosophy that puts the needs of the customer over the needs of the business.

By Patrick Grieve

Last updated January 24, 2022

We’ve all heard the clichés about focusing on the customer…

“The customer comes first.”

“The customer is always right.”

You’ve said these at least once. So have I. So has every business owner. (They’re clichés for a reason.)

And yet… so many businesses still put the needs and wants of the company over what’s best for the customer.

It’s a lot easier for businesses to focus on what they need instead of what customers need. Your business needs — make more sales, cut more costs — stare you in the face all day long. Unless you spend most of your day talking directly to customers, their needs probably don’t spend much time at the front of your mind.

Here’s the good news: chances are, your competitors are making the same mistake. They’re not taking a customer-oriented approach to how they do things.

You have an opportunity to get and keep more customers by doing a better job of putting their needs first. And your approach to customer service can play a big role here.

The key is customer orientation.

What is customer orientation?

Customer orientation is a business approach that puts the needs of the customer over the needs of the business. Customer-oriented companies understand that the business won’t thrive unless it consistently improves customer focus. It’s a way of thinking that aligns your business goals with your customers’ goals.

Building a customer-oriented culture means recognising that customers are the business. For example, Zappos founder, Tony Hsieh, is well known for his belief that “customer service shouldn’t just be a department, it should be the entire company.”

Customer-oriented skills

Customer-orientation isn’t only about customer service, but it requires support teams to master key customer service skills.

Are you a customer-oriented person? Here are a few skills of customer-oriented teams:

  • Empathy

  • Ability to understand and act on customer data

  • Agility: customer-oriented companies quickly adapt to customer needs

  • Effective communication

  • Active listening

  • Problem-solving skills

  • Customer focus

Customer orientation examples

What is an example of customer orientation? Here are four examples of companies that have made customer orientation part of their DNA:

1. Nordstrom

The retail giant is well-known for creating positive customer experiences.

Their one-rule employee handbook simply says, “Use good judgment in all situations.” (While there are more rules, this still says a lot about how important the customer is to Nordstrom.)

Here’s more on how Nordstrom goes the extra mile for customers.

2. Amazon

Amazon lives and breathes customer experience. The company goes to remarkable lengths to make customers happy.

They describe their leadership philosophy as “start with the customer and work backwards.” CEO Jeff Bezos even reads customer complaint emails.

It’s safe to say that a customer-oriented approach to business has worked out pretty well for them.

3. Netflix

Netflix solves customer needs and creates fans with a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods.

Over the years, they’ve used this approach to:

  • Cut down DVD shipping times by opening more distribution hubs

  • Use more customer-friendly language in their interface

  • Improve the quality of movie and show suggestions made to customers

Of course, that customer-oriented mindset even extends into customer service. Here’s a fun example from a live chat session.

4. REI

REI manages to stand out in a crowded field of outdoor equipment retailers. They’ve done this by getting into their customers’ heads and understanding what makes them tick.

Here’s how well REI understands their customers: in 2015, they closed all stores on Black Friday… one of the busiest, most profitable days of the year.

Why would they do this?

As REI CEO Jerry Stritzke put it, “we love great gear, but we are even more passionate about the experiences it unlocks.”

As it turns out, so are REI’s customers. The #OptOutside message and accompanying campaign resonated deeply with them. It’s now an ongoing, annual event with millions of participants.

Since launching #OptOutside, REI has seen membership and revenue continue to steadily climb. Not a bad return on an idea that most businesses would consider crazy.

Why is it important to be customer oriented?

Here’s how being customer-oriented saves (and makes) your business money.

Keeping the customer top of mind isn’t just something you do because it feels good or right. It also helps your bottom line:

It’s easier to keep existing customers than get new ones

On average, it can cost six or seven times more to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one. That’s because most consumers only visit a website one time—no matter how much you spend on marketing.

Increasing customer retention rates by just 5% can boost your company’s profits by 25% to 95%.

Yes, you can grow your business by getting better at customer acquisition. But it’s almost always easier to hold on to an existing customer than to find a new one.

And one of the best ways to keep more customers is to provide fast, exceptional customer service.

How (good) customer service creates loyalty

According to Zendesk’s Customer Experience Trends Report 2020, 57% of customers cited customer service as an attribute that makes them loyal to a brand.

The same poll found that the most important aspect of a good customer service experience was being able to resolve an issue quickly.

Conversely, long wait times when interacting with an agent ranked as the most frustrating aspect of a bad customer service experience.

See more customer experience trends

Customers want solutions, and they want them now. That’s why so much of being customer-oriented is about becoming customer service-oriented. A customer orientation mindset isn’t going to do anything for your business unless it extends to your customer service.

5 key components of a customer-oriented strategy

You can’t put customers’ concerns first until you know exactly what they are.

So a customer service-oriented approach starts with identifying their needs. Once you’ve done that, you can start putting the “customer” back in customer service.

1. Get customer feedback often

Find out what customers think of your customer service so you know what needs to improve. An easy way to do this is by sending out customer satisfaction (CSAT) surveys.

At Zendesk, we simply ask the customer if their interaction was good or bad. We also give them an open-ended comment box where they can provide additional feedback about their experience.

Some companies prefer to measure their progress using Customer Effort Score (CES). This asks customers to rate how easy their interaction was on a scale of “very easy” to “very difficult.” You can learn more about customers’ experience by giving them more flexible options.

Whether you prefer the CSAT or CES metric, the point is to measure how difficult it is for customers to get their issues resolved.

2. Use that feedback to set goals

When you look at your customer feedback, you’re going to find areas where you’re not doing as great as you’d like.

Once you’ve done that, it’s time to set new goals that address those areas.

For example:

  • Let’s say one of your support agents has lower-than-average CSAT ratings. You may want to monitor their work and provide extra training to help them reach a higher benchmark.

  • Suppose your CES data shows that customers rate live chat interactions much higher than email ones. You may want to work on cutting down your email response times.

3. Monitor social media feedback

Surveys aren’t the only way to find out how customers perceive your brand. Monitoring social media can reveal what else they’re saying about you.

Look for:

  • Common complaints

  • Frequently asked questions

  • Other support issues that should be addressed

Chances are, you’ll see the same issues come up over and over. This is great — now you know what underlying problems your product or service has, or what common sources of confusion you need to clear up.

Also, try to respond quickly when customers ask questions or complain on social media. A good reply will:

  • Correctly identify the issue

  • Offer links to additional information

  • Close the loop by thanking the customer and apologising for the inconvenience

Fast, helpful responses on social media can help strengthen and repair customer relationships.

4. Encourage compassion

It’s tempting to focus on improving call times and survey scores, and to think that’s all that matters. Just make sure you don’t lose the human touch in the process.

Customer orientation means that when the customer wins, you win too. Don’t make customers feel like a burden (and definitely don’t charge them a fee to interact with a real human).

Remind your customer service agents to:

  • Practice empathy when dealing with customers
  • Address their frustrations with patience and understanding

When it comes to promoting a compassionate approach, it helps to lead by example. The way you treat your employees is the way they’ll treat customers — make sure you show employees you value them.

5. Get sales and customer service to collaborate

When customer support teams and sales teams work together, the customer gets better service from both parties.

Collaboration is critical. 70 percent of customers expect companies to collaborate on their behalf.

To stay connected, sales and customer support should use a shared customer management platform. That way:

  • Support agents can easily tell sales reps when a customer wants to learn about a new product

  • Sales reps can quickly pass difficult technical questions to support agents who are better equipped to answer them

The quicker a customer gets to the right agent or rep, the faster their issue can be resolved, and the happier they’ll be.

4 ways to become more customer service oriented

It’s important that customer orientation doesn’t only matter to certain teams. For the best possible results, you need the whole company to get customer-oriented.

Here are a few ways to to weave customer orientation into everything you do:

  • Make great customer service a central part of your mission. Work to connect your entire organisation through customer-centric values.
  • Share customer data and stories across the organisation. Help everyone see your company through customers’ eyes.

  • Make the customer experience personal for your employees. One way to do this is to have everyone spend time working in customer service, even if only for a week or two.

  • More than anything, encourage collaboration between customer service and other departments.
  • Nobody understands the customer experience better than the people who spend the most time with customers. They can help teams all across your company keep the customer’s needs front and center.

    When you make customer orientation a company-wide priority, customers will get a consistently better experience, making them more likely to do business with you — and to tell others to do the same.

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