Article | 7 min read

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 December 6, 2021
Last updated March 13, 2022

It’s easy to talk about being a customer-first organization. It’s comforting to think that everyone in the organization 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 does customer first mean?

Customer first means the organization puts the customer at the center of organizational decision-making instead of organizing around products. In short, a customer-first strategy is just what it sounds like. 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 organization. It’s really about doing the right thing for the customer and ensuring everyone in the organization 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 organizations. Instead of designing the customer journey around product creation and delivery, they organized around improving the experience for the customer. They disrupted entire industries based on understanding their customer and their needs. In doing so, they also became highly profitable and successful businesses.

Business benefits of a customer first strategy

When executed well, customer-first strategies also deliver better results for the organization. Customers who have great experiences spend more, stay longer, and tell more people about their experiences. This leads to increases in 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 emphasizes 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 percent of customers report that a good customer service experience would change their behavior as customers. According to the Zendesk study, “87 percent reveal that their experience actually changed future buying behavior, from recommending products or services to other people (67 percent) to purchasing or using more products and services from that company (54 percent) to considering purchasing or using more from that company (39 percent).”

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

Being 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 organization. These customer-first ideas drive employee behaviors that also serve the customer.

There are many ways positive customer experiences drive revenue, growth, and loyalty.

How to put customers first

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 organization.

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 organization. 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) program is another way to stay connected to their experiences. Integrate customer feedback into the work cycles of your organization 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 percent 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 organization need to understand and deliver on customer-centric outcomes. This means defining success by tying customer experience metrics to organizational goals. We recommend a Customer Experience Success Statement, which can help leaders see how focusing on the customer benefits the entire organization.

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.

Make conversational connections

Take a look at recent years’ top trends in messaging to deepen your customer connections.

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 organization.

Delivering on a customer-first approach means giving employees the tools, technology, and resources they need to personalize the customer experience. To achieve this, organizations 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.

Centralizing 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 30 percent compared to last year.) Employees need to understand where the customer is on their journey and recognize 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 okay to start today.

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

  • Is the customer experience mission (or organizational vision) strong and clear, so every employee sees beyond the product?
  • Is proactive customer experience prioritized and understood as part of the organization’s success?
  • Is customer data centralized and visible so employees can deliver personalized 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 recognized for who they are, not just what they buy?
  • There are ways you can create positive change in your organization, even if you haven’t checked everything off this list. Start where you can and focus on customers first. Your organization 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 organizations—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.

Make conversational connections

Take a look at recent years' top trends in messaging to deepen your customer connections.

Make conversational connections

Take a look at recent years' top trends in messaging to deepen your customer connections.

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