Article | 10 min read

A guide to building a customer-centric organizational culture

Your company’s organizational culture is its identity. Learn how to build a culture that’s all about your customers.

By Molly Murphy

Last updated March 23, 2022

Do you know what the No. 1 consideration for today’s job seekers is? Surprisingly, it’s not cash; it’s not the benefits, either. It’s culture fit.

Fifty-six percent of people think finding the right organizational culture is more important than money in choosing a job, according to Glassdoor. And having a culture that inspires your workers is key for long-term retention, too.

But company culture differs from industry to industry, and in the world of customer support, you need to build your culture around your customers.

Job seekers in customer service roles want to know that the work they do makes people happy. Show them your organization is committed to that same goal by building a customer-obsessed culture.

Cultivating the right organizational culture is critical for attracting the right employees, and making that culture customer-centric is critical for keeping buyers happy and employees engaged.

What is a customer-centric culture?

Culture = Beliefs + Norms + Behaviors + Practices

A stuffy definition of organizational culture may be something like, “a set of values, actions, and beliefs shared by individuals in an organization.” But really, it’s your company’s vibe. It’s not just what you say, but what you do—and how you do it. Your culture is the secret sauce that makes your company unique.

“Culture is your organization’s personality,” says Fidelma Butler, Vice President of Talent & Organization Development at Zendesk. “It permeates how people relate to each other, how decisions get made, what work gets done and how, and how it feels to be there.”

In a customer-centric organizational culture, a company’s values, actions, and beliefs directly tie back to the ultimate goal of customer satisfaction. A customer-centric company will often go above and beyond to make its customers happy. Think of companies like Zappos, who are even more famous for their customer service than what they sell.

Why is being customer-centered important?

Having a unique culture that inspires your employees and attracts top talent is a noble goal. But focusing that culture around your customer experience instead of happy hours or office layout is more impactful for long-term happiness—for both your team and your buyers.

Here are two major benefits that customer-centric companies enjoy.

  1. Higher employee engagement

    Research suggests that employees are more engaged when your company culture is customer-centric and vice versa—they feel as though their work is more meaningful. Plus, a more engaged employee will work harder for your customers, leading to higher customer satisfaction. It’s a win-win.

    “When employees are more engaged, customers are more engaged too,” explains Butler. “That’s logical—the happier your employees are, the better the interaction with your customers, and the more likely those customers are to be satisfied and remain loyal to the company.”

  2. More agile company model

    Your company culture can dictate your team’s ability to change with the times. A culture centered on customers will inherently be more flexible than one that isn’t, because evolving to suit buyers’ changing expectations is necessary for a customer-centric organization.

    “If your industry demands agility as it is changing rapidly, but your organization is rigid and not open to continuous improvement, you will suffer,” says Butler.

    Today, many companies are having to adapt their procedures and models in favor of remote-first work. The agility that comes from a customer-centric organizational culture can make this transition easier than traditional, less flexible cultures.

Bottom line? Culture matters and affects your customers, both directly and indirectly.

What are the most common types of organizational culture?

Before you can build customer focus into your culture, you need to identify what kind of culture your company has right now.

The Organizational Cultural Assessment Instrument (OCAI) is a popular research model that breaks up workplace cultures into four types. The types are based on a Competing Values Framework. Your company’s unique mix of the four values fits in with a corresponding culture type.

Regardless of which cultural model you identify with, know this: It is possible to put the customer at the center of any of these models.

Type 1: Create culture

“Create” cultures have that passionate, innovative, start-up energy. You’re likely to see this group of folks at a trendy coffee shop downtown or at a co-working space in the business district.

This type of culture is creative and nimble. Employees are encouraged to come up with the next ingenious idea and to take risks. Managers are often entrepreneurs or visionaries. Their goal? To grow and develop the next big thing.

You see the “create” culture often in SaaS organizations, start-ups, and cutting-edge tech.

Make it about your customers: In a culture that values being on the front lines of innovation, put that spirit to work for your customers. Channel that creative energy into coming up with novel customer-centric tech or new ways to communicate and connect with your customers. Think about Amazon’s single-minded dedication to their customers, and how that dedication overcame huge logistical barriers to create a new standard for low prices and lightning-fast delivery. Consider how you can put that type of energy to work in your own industry.

Type 2: Collaborate culture

“Collaborate” cultures are the Hufflepuffs of the business world. Think: a friendly work environment with a cohesive, family-like team. These businesses thrive on teamwork and loyalty.

Company leaders are likely to be called mentors. They’re often involved in their employees’ lives. Meanwhile, employees tend to have a lot in common with each other personally and professionally. This culture is conflict-adverse and is based largely on empathy. The ultimate goal is developing long-term partnerships.

“Collaborate” cultures are common in small companies, family-run businesses, education organizations, and nonprofits.

Make it about your customers: Put customers at the center of your team. Instead of thinking of your team as “us” and your customers as “them,” invite buyers into the family. Strive to make personal connections with customers on social media and through support experiences. Look for ways to give back to them and invest in their growth and development like they’re a member of your company. The same principles you use to make your employees feel understood and cared for will make your customers feel valued, generating the sense of loyalty your workers applaud.

Type 3: Control culture

When you think “control” culture, think corporate. This is the most formal, organized, and structured kind of work environment. It’s very procedural in nature, and organizations are run like well-oiled machines, with every person playing their assigned role.

“Control” cultures are naturally risk-averse, focusing instead on efficiency and predictability. Managers lead from a well-defined handbook of policies and procedures. Employees are expected to perform well—but within their defined role—to remain as efficient as possible.

These environments aren’t necessarily rigid, but they are predictable. Companies with “control” cultures know what works well, and they repeat it for maximum success. You’ll often find this culture in the military, government, and banking industries.

Make it about your customers: “Control” cultures are process-driven, so the key to making them customer-centric is documenting customer focus in your values and procedures. Implement your customer focus as a matter of company record, and it should be adopted as easily as all other policies.

Type 4: Compete culture

“Compete” cultures are high-energy, laser-focused, and obsessed with winning. These work environments are competitive, fast-moving, and results-driven. The strong desire to win often causes internal teams to compete amongst each other as well as external competition with competitors.

Leadership in “compete” cultures tend to be tough, pushing their teams to succeed and exceed their past goals. Employees often share their management’s drive to win and are aggressive and goal-oriented. This kind of culture’s single-minded focus is on surpassing revenues and winning in their market. You’ll often find this culture in sales, marketing, and consultancy businesses.

Make it about your customers: The “compete” culture thrives with a clearly defined goal to focus on. To make this kind of organization work for your customers, make them the center of your goal-setting. Whether that objective is to “be known as the top customer service organization in our industry” or to “increase our net promoter score by 10 percent from last quarter,” use your team’s competitive spirit to drive an exceptional customer experience.

Good employee experience is the backbone of good customer experience

Though the “right” employee experience is unique to each company, these universal best practices can help any company take good care of its workforce and, in turn, help it deliver on the company’s promise to its customers.

How to keep a customer-centric organizational culture alive in changing times

A lot has changed in 2020, including company culture. Many businesses are adjusting to a fully-remote workforce, often for the first time, and struggling to carry a brick-and-mortar culture online. The good news is you’re not alone.

“We’re reorganizing how we work, as a large number of our workforce is becoming fully remote,” says Butler. “Part of that is reimagining the culture and employee experience of Zendesk, so we can continue to hire and retain great talent.”

These challenges are affecting us all. Luckily, we’ve got some expert advice to help you transition.

  • Treat customers with extra empathy

    Be prepared to adapt to customers’ changing needs in the face of the pandemic. This may mean offering extra support hours, providing your team with additional remote training to support customer needs, or looking for creative payment solutions for struggling businesses.

    In order to make this time a positive experience for your customers, double down on empathy. Proactively look for ways to support your buyers.

    “Many of our customers are in dire financial situations right now,” says Butler. “At Zendesk, we assembled a special team to support these customers with favorable payment terms.”

    Other customers, especially those already offering remote software, have experienced unprecedented growth during the pandemic. Caring for those customers’ growing businesses is equally important.

    Having a company that can move quickly with your customers’ changing needs is critical during unprecedented times.

    “At Zendesk, we realized a few years ago that agility was a key competency we would need to develop,” says Butler. “In 2020, we have really seen that come to fruition.”

  • Support employees so they can continue to support your customers

    Survey your employees regularly to gauge worker engagement during the pandemic. It’s the remote version of sticking your head in their office to check-in on their well-being.

    Employees can’t give exceptional customer care and be empathetic to their customers’ needs if their own personal and professional lives aren’t being cared for first—a challenge in a post-pandemic world. Keep tabs on your employees’ health and development so they can do the same for your customers.

    At Zendesk, we’re handling this issue by surveying employees every eight weeks, asking questions that ensure they’re properly supported in both their personal and professional lives. It’s an easy way to hold yourself accountable for investing in your people, and it gives employees a private way to start the conversation.

    “We’ve used employee responses to evaluate the initiatives we are bringing in, and we’re offering additional resources for support and wellbeing,” Butler adds.

    Zendesk also launched a 24/7 internal feedback platform, making performance reviews unnecessary during remote work. With the platform, managers and employees can have a continual, two-way conversation about areas of struggle and success. Staying informed of employees’ stumbling blocks helps you solve issues before they carry over to your customers’ experiences.

  • Build the customer-centric culture you want

    At Zendesk, we celebrate a culture of empathy. We invest in our people because it’s the best way to ensure our people invest in our customers—and customers are at the center of everything we do.

    What kind of culture does your organization have? Does it do right by your employees and, ultimately, your customers?

    Regardless of which OCAI culture your team most identifies with, there’s a way to make it customer-centric. One great way to do that is to make sure you’re using software that is designed for real-time customer feedback and analytics. If you want to check out a customer-focused support solution, get started today.

Good employee experience is the backbone of good customer experience

Though the “right” employee experience is unique to each company, these universal best practices can help any company take good care of its workforce and, in turn, help it deliver on the company's promise to its customers.

Good employee experience is the backbone of good customer experience

Though the “right” employee experience is unique to each company, these universal best practices can help any company take good care of its workforce and, in turn, help it deliver on the company's promise to its customers.

Learn more