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Article 7 min read

What customer first really means (+ 9 strategic steps)

Putting your customers at the center of your organizational decision-making process can directly translate to long-term relationships and business success.

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

Last updated September 8, 2023

It’s easy to proclaim yourself as a customer-first organization, but do you really qualify as one?

Prioritizing service is a good start, but to truly identify as customer first, you need to be empathetic and proactive towards your clientele and employees in every interaction. Doing so leads to an improved bottom line, quality customer relationships, and an unmatched competitive advantage.

In this article, we’ll touch on the main tenets of a customer-first culture. From action steps to real-world examples, you’ll know how to deliver outstanding experiences today and guarantee success tomorrow.

Table of contents

What does customer first mean?

Being customer first means a business puts the customer at the center of organizational decision-making instead of purely focusing on products or services.

This involves seeking ways to consistently deliver a positive customer experience by designing and delivering with the consumer in mind.

A customer-first mindset is closely related to purpose-driven thinking. The customer and their experience become part of the company’s purpose. In turn, employees are driven by consumer interactions and seek to deliver good customer service whenever possible.

Being customer first is about doing the right thing for the customer and ensuring everyone in your organization aligns with that mission.

What are the benefits of a customer-first strategy?

When you prioritize positive customer experiences, you create a foundation for profitability, business growth, and long-term relationships.

Many of the most successful industry disruptors of the last decade—Uber, Airbnb, and Warby Parker, to name a few—can be classified as customer-first organizations. Instead of operating around product creation and delivery, these brands organized their business around customer needs, catapulting their operations into the mainstream.

But customer satisfaction goes beyond the Fortune 500 list, and every organization should use this approach. A few benefits of doing so include:

  1. Improved customer retention: Customers with positive experiences purchase more often and tell others about their experiences. This improves brand loyalty and leads to frequent purchases and referrals.
  2. Increased bottom line: According to our report Quantifying the business impact of customer service, 87 percent of customers reveal that good customer service made them more likely to purchase, make future purchases, and recommend the brand to other people.
  3. Higher employee retention: According to research by SurveyMonkey, employees reported a clear connection between finding their work meaningful and factors like customer empathy, impact, and satisfaction. This indicates that customer-first behaviors also benefit employees—and happy employees are more likely to stick around.
  4. Stronger competitive advantage: A customer-first approach increases profitability, boosts employee retention, and improves your company’s reputation. This amounts to a considerable competitive advantage over other businesses that don’t subscribe to this mindset.

How to put customers first in 9 steps

Having a comprehensive customer experience management strategy is key to being customer first. To do this, ensure these processes are happening in your organization.

1. See your business through your customers’ POV

Successful companies don’t simply focus on products or profits—they prioritize how they can best help their prospects. To do this effectively, view your operations through the lens of the consumer.

Looking through your customers’ eyes, you can better understand the frustrations and challenges that lead to an initial purchase. The buyer’s journey describes a prospect moving through the sales funnel, whereas the customer’s journey focuses on the support customers need to continue a relationship with your organization.

Throughout the customer acquisition and retention processes, ask yourself a few questions:

  • How can we align our offering with our prospects’ initial concerns?

  • What features do prospects consider the most valuable?

  • After the initial purchase, what level of support and service do our customers expect from us?

When you reframe your organizational efforts around these journeys, you can proactively find ways to improve your support, product features, and overall customer experience.

2. Know your customers and what matters to them

It’s not enough to know the journeys your customers go through—you also need to know who they are. Achieve this with buyer personas.

A buyer persona is an in-depth description of your target customers and includes age, gender, location, likes, dislikes, and more. When you create buyer personas, you can use this information to personalize your customers’ experiences—from the content you post on social media to how best to approach client support and product updates.

Developing these personas is a great way to keep customers top of mind throughout your organization.

3. Deliver proactive customer experiences

A study from Gartner states that proactive customer service is a key aspect of meeting customer demands. Yet only 13 percent of customers say they regularly receive that service.

Delivering a proactive experience is a competitive advantage for your organization. Strive to anticipate your client’s needs and address issues before they arise. By showing a drive to go above and beyond, you’ll soon solidify your business as one that prioritizes the consumer experience.

Understanding your customer and putting them at the center of your organizational decision-making is the only way to become proactive.

4. Define what success looks like

Leaders throughout your organization need to understand and deliver consumer-centric outcomes—and that starts with tying organizational goals to customer experience metrics.

Reframe your thinking to prioritize service rather than forecasting solely on profits and successful quarters. Utilize a customer orientation approach to guide your decision-making and define your success with positive prospect experiences.

Start by identifying important variables to your industry—churn and retention rates, customer lifetime value (LTV), and similar customer retention metrics are good places to begin. From there, create an action plan to improve these metrics in the short and long term.

5. Execute employee training to foster consistency

Employees are often the first line of communication with consumers. Ensure they are well-trained on your customer-first initiatives.

Investing in comprehensive training programs for your employees empowers them to deliver a positive customer experience time after time. Armed with organizational principles, customer service training, and a drive to prioritize customer needs, your team will be well-equipped to handle any interaction—no matter their department.

Most importantly, a standardized training program ensures the customer experience is consistent. This means no matter who a client speaks with, they’ll reach reps with the knowledge and customer service voice to resolve issues expertly.

6. Establish clear action plans for (difficult) customer interactions

It’s nearly impossible for an organization to deliver perfect service at every touchpoint. Your team should be ready to handle negative customer interactions and turn them into positive results.

Creating action plans for difficult interactions can teach employees the skills to empathize with frustrated customers and how to diffuse these situations effectively. Bad customer service can sink an operation, so everyone in your organization must know the best course of action, even in times of stress.

These plans should include conflict resolution techniques and follow-up procedures. Empower your employees to close the loop with upset customers to ensure you resolve their problems and integrate their feedback to address the root cause of the negative interaction.

7. Stay on top of trends and innovations

Staying on top of consumer trends and industry innovations is crucial to putting customers first in an ever-changing marketplace.

We’ve entered an era in which most everything is available in the blink of an eye. Ridesharing, food delivery, online shopping, and more are ready at the tap of a finger for today’s consumer, and convenience has never been more prominent.

Whether customers find your business through a social media post, a Google search, or word of mouth, your processes and support systems must be as seamless and convenient as possible. Start by tailoring your product and customer service management protocols to stay ahead of emerging demands and trends.

Check out our guide below to discover the most significant customer service trends in the coming year to prepare your operations.

8. Pivot when change is needed

While it’s crucial to establish action plans and customer-first initiatives, successful businesses know how to pivot when consumers demand change.

Pivoting could mean empowering employees to make a judgment call when faced with a difficult situation. Not every negative interaction will follow a predefined script. Allowing employees to slightly bend the rules when it makes sense—such as issuing a refund or sending a product replacement—can significantly upgrade customer support.

Pivoting could also mean changing organizational strategies in the face of emerging trends. Customer expectations can change by the week, and just because an action plan was successful last quarter doesn’t mean it will continue to be. Always seek to pivot and improve strategies to stay competitive and customer-centric.

9. Assess your plans and performance for improvements

Customer first isn’t a “set and forget” approach—it’s a philosophy that should be continuously monitored and improved.

You won’t know how effective your strategy is unless you are comparing it to consumer data. Regularly conducting surveys, evaluating your customer service metrics, and revisiting customer service best practices can let you know where your strategy is successful and where you need to improve.

Use this data to pivot, alter, or completely change your approach. Consumer preferences are changing rapidly, and your customer-first initiatives should be just as fluid.

Discover the biggest customer service trends of 2023

Excelling in customer service means delivering on the expectations of today while also keeping an eye on tomorrow. Read the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report to get the information you need to drive business growth through quality customer experiences.

Examples of businesses putting the customer first

Now that we’ve covered why a customer-first strategy is so important, let’s look at real-world examples from Syfe, Thrasio, and Unity.

Creating a customer-first culture

Customer-first cultures are purpose-driven, proactive, and always put the consumer at the forefront of organizational decision-making.

As we’ve learned, it’s not enough to simply declare yourself customer first. Businesses need to develop a customer-focused culture while giving employees the tools, technology, and resources they need to personalize the customer experience—and we can help with the latter. Software like Zendesk can enable you to revolutionize your customer service and experiences, boosting your bottom line in the process.

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