Lots of brands claim they’re customer-centric and always putting their customers first. But is that really true?
The fact is, many companies think more about profits than about how they treat their buyers. That makes sense on the surface—after all, any business needs to be profitable to stay afloat. But if you aren’t connecting your customers’ happiness to your revenue, you’re missing the bigger picture.
In the long run, it’s much healthier for your bottom line to put customer needs first. A 2019 Forrester report found that increasing customer satisfaction by a single point can grow revenue by as much as $1 billion.
So, customer-centricity is more than a buzzword—it’s the secret to your business’ longevity. Putting the buyer at the center of your company’s orbit can change your brand for the better.
What does it mean to be customer-centric?
Customer centricity is a strategy and mindset that focuses on its buyers. Customer-centric (or client-centric) means caring not only about making customers happy, but also about meeting their needs and building trust.
“Customer centricity is literally putting the customer at the center of everything you do.” Jonathan Brummel, Director of Enterprise Support at Zendesk
Customer-centric business cultures are built by forming great buyer relationships and providing exceptional experiences—they don’t just deliver impressive profit margins. This shift in mindset takes time and patience and isn’t easy, but the benefits can be enormous.
Customer-centric organizations prioritize client satisfaction because they know that happy buyers are the secret to long-term success. Positive reviews aren’t just an edge against the competition—they’re necessary for gauging success as a brand.
The concept of customer-centricity is currently exploding in popularity, too. Digital-savvy brands are focusing heavily on customer experience (CX), especially with ecommerce sales increasing in the wake of COVID-19. Traditional companies that want to compete need to focus on customer-centricity with the same zeal; after all, today’s customers expect to be catered to and valued.
The Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2021 found that 75 percent of buyers will pay more for an excellent customer experience. This represents a huge opportunity—and responsibility—for businesses. You can charge more, but you have to earn those dollars by providing services that go the extra mile. The goal should always be to create a stand-out experience for your buyers.
You must also remember that customer-centrism is vital at every stage of your buyers’ journeys—from how they connect with you on social media to their shopping experience—not just in support interactions.
TL;DR? If your brand’s mission statement doesn’t include the phrase “customer-centric,” it’s not the final version. Focusing on your customers and building a business specifically for them is the only way to compete in today’s markets.
Why is being customer-centric important?
Making your business customer-centric is critical for meeting shoppers’ increased expectations for quality experiences. Research by Deloitte & Touche found that customer-centric companies are 60 percent more profitable than those that aren’t.
Happier buyers are also more likely to remain loyal to your brand and give you the benefit of the doubt if they encounter an issue with your product or service. Loyal, satisfied customers are a valuable asset for the stability and continued success of your company, too, because they’re your best advertisement for gaining new shoppers.
Keeping customers happy has become even more important during the pandemic. Buyers are staying in and shopping online, so they have far more time to research the brands they’re purchasing from and evaluate where they’d most like to spend their dollars. It also means they have extra time to sing your praises or complain about you on social media.
Customer-centric companies are 60 percent more profitable than those that aren’t.
Research by Zendesk and ESG revealed that the companies best prepared to handle the fluctuating COVID-19 market focus on customer-centric agility—meaning they constantly adapt to buyers’ needs and expectations. These brands were more likely to steal market share, grow their customer base, and increase customer spend during the pandemic compared to businesses that weren’t as focused on customer-centricity.
On the flip side, neglecting buyers’ wants and needs can be detrimental to any business. A single angry customer can create a social media firestorm by complaining online about bad experiences with your company. Word travels fast, and it can take a toll on your brand’s reputation—one you may not be able to recover from.
How to become customer-centric
You get it—customer-centricity is important. To figure out how to start transforming your business, here are 10 ways to become more customer-centric.
- Cultivate a mission
- Get data out of silos
- Act on feedback
- Analyze customer behavior
- Use AI
- Do good
- Use segmentation
- Use multiple channels
- Build trust
Cultivate a mission of customer service
There’s one sure way to put customers at the center of your company culture: Make them a part of your mission. That means incorporating customer-centricity into your values and practicing what you preach daily—including hiring people who are driven to deliver a great experience.
One company that has become synonymous with customer-centricity is Zappos. The online retailer lives and breathes its No. 1 core value, “deliver WOW through service,” in everything it does. At Zappos, WOW is the goal to delight and awe customers with every interaction. To truly WOW buyers, you have to exceed their expectations and make a positive emotional connection with them. It’s a tall order, but it’s one that Zappos fiercely protects.
This idea permeates throughout the entire company. Zappos is slow to hire (and quick to fire) as a way to ensure someone’s the right fit for the customer-focused culture. Because the company is obsessed with delivering exceptional shopping and support experiences, all new hires (including executive leadership) spend two weeks on the front lines answering customer calls.
During the holidays, the retailer’s busiest time of the year, Zappos also takes an “all hands on deck” approach to customer service. No matter their level, employees from all departments pitch in to field customer questions and calls. It’s easy to claim your business is all about the customer, but it takes seeing the CEO pick up the phone to resolve a buyer issue to truly prove the commitment.
Zappos is well known for its customer-centric culture and takes an extreme approach to excellence. But the principles this retailer uses can—and should—be applied to every business.
To bring a Zappos-esque buyer focus to your team, consider having every new hire go through customer service training and occasionally work support shifts. That training gives all employees valuable insights into customer concerns and the stresses of customer service work. It also means that in times of unusually high ticket volume, you can pull from your own employee pool for additional help instead of having to outsource. Setting the expectation that every single employee is responsible for customer happiness is a great way to further promote your customer-centric culture in the long-term.
The foundation of a client-centric culture is truly understanding your customers and having empathy for their needs and concerns. So, get your people out on the front lines communicating directly with your customers, just like Zappos.
Get your data out of silos
Have you ever called a company with a question, only to be bounced to different departments and repeating your story a bunch of times? If you think that’s frustrating, you’re in good company. According to our Customer Experience Trends Report, 68 percent of customers are annoyed when their call is transferred.
Transferred calls often happen because support agents can’t access critical information about customers. Companies have a lot of customer data to manage, so they usually store it in multiple places—making it hard to find.
The simplest way to solve this problem is with a customer relationship management (CRM) system. CRMs give you the benefit of storing all your customer data in a central hub. The newest options are cloud-based, too, so your support agents can log on remotely from anywhere in the world and have instant access to customer info.
CRMs provide your team members with valuable insights, like a buyer’s purchase history and any past conversations they’ve had with agents, so they can better understand and cater to each customer’s needs. While upgrading your current record system to a CRM requires an initial cost and training investment, it will lead to a much more streamlined, irritation-free experience for your customers. And building systems around customer convenience and satisfaction is exactly what customer-centricity is about.
Personalize the customer experience
If you have a one-size-fits-all approach to your customer experience, you’re missing the mark. Every customer is unique, so you must tailor your service to their individual needs and wants.
77 percent of consumers have chosen, recommended, or paid more for a brand that provides a personalized service or experience.
To deliver a truly personalized experience, you need technology that zeroes in on each customer’s behavior. This allows you to better serve your buyers and build good relationships with them. While it takes work, the investment pays off. Companies that personalize experiences typically succeed in customer retention and acquisition. According to Forrester, “77 percent of consumers have chosen, recommended, or paid more for a brand that provides a personalized service or experience.”
A CX platform is essential for personalizing customer experiences. Consider the direct-to-consumer men’s apparel brand Mizzen+Main. This company wanted to deliver highly personalized service to its customers—and to do that, it needed to make all its customer insights easily accessible to agents.
Mizzen+Main integrated its customer data into Zendesk Sunshine, allowing support agents to view details like purchase history and customer sizing. With this information at their fingertips, agents can easily make personalized product suggestions and sales while chatting with a customer.
“We’re obsessed with customer experience, and data helps us interact with customers on an individual basis,” says Sabrina Abney, Mizzen+Main’s director of ecommerce. “The last thing someone wants from a brand that’s all about personalization is to be treated like they’re just a number.”
Act on customer feedback
If you want to put customers at the center of your business, you have to listen to what they have to say—and then do something about what you learn.
Dig into the data. Are there any complaints that keep popping up in your customer feedback? We’re not just talking about customer satisfaction surveys (though those are important), but in all points of communication such as messaging, calls, or emails.
Immerse yourself and take it all in. If you say you’re listening to your customers, but you’re not truly hearing their problems, then you’re not listening hard enough. Once you notice commonalities in customer complaints, you need to do something about them. Customers likely won’t feel heard if their feedback doesn’t motivate you to change the way you do things.
It doesn’t mean saying yes to every customer’s whim, but it does mean shifting internal mindsets to grow with the times, whether your company is a startup or a 100-year-old brand. Levi Strauss & Co. is a great example of a company that modified its business model to accommodate its customers’ evolving needs.
Levi’s formerly only made denim from “shrink-to-fit” cotton. But when the popularity of athleisure clothing triggered a decline in denim, Levi’s put its customers at the center of its design by going beyond feedback and observing denim-wearers in their everyday environment.
The team discovered a significant number of their customers rode bikes daily. That insight led to the development of a new activewear collection that features stretchy, breathable fabric that moves with you—perfect for Levi’s more active and modern customer base. It was a strategic shift that revitalized the brand for a new generation.
Like Levi’s, the key for your company is not letting your business’ traditional conventions stand in the way of your customers’ changing needs. For a software-based company, this may mean putting a significant investment into redesigning your user experience, creating a mobile app, or making a big update to streamline certain features.
While allowing your brand’s DNA to change may feel like a scary step, it’s critical that you grow and adjust as your buyers do.
Track and analyze customer behavior
It’s important to remain open to customer feedback. But you also need to delve into the context of where it’s coming from (and why). Is a small group of vocal customers giving most of the negative feedback, or is there a recurring complaint that transcends multiple customer segments?
A particularly spicy complaint may catch your attention, but that doesn’t mean it’s something you should act on. Do more in-depth research before making any moves. Reach out to a meaningful number of your existing customers and ask for feedback around the specific issue you’re exploring. Then, compare their verbal feedback with their physical buying behaviors.
Say some customers complain about your red T-shirts, but those T-shirts remain your top seller. You may be tempted to pull the item to appease customer complaints, but then you’d see a considerable drop in revenue. Instead, sort the negative reviews by their specific issues. Are people struggling with shrinkage when washing? Do the T-shirts not hold up over time? Is the sizing inaccurate?
Combining feedback and buying patterns will help you find the best solution instead of automatically scrapping a popular item. Consider pre-washing the shirts to help with shrinking or using a different cotton distributor for a higher-quality product. Then, promote the “new and improved” red T-shirt based on customer feedback.
While feedback is an invaluable tool for gaining insights and understanding customer moods, it should be complemented by behavioral data. Where feelings and figures line up, it’s a safe bet that’s a good place to invest time and money.
Use AI and automation to reduce workloads
COVID-19 brought a 30-percent uptick in support requests for many businesses. Some markets, like ecommerce and food delivery services, experienced an even larger increase. Prepare yourself for the ebb and flow of customer demand by using AI and automation as a buffer when you’re short-staffed.
One brand that saw a huge surge in demand due to COVID-19 was the visual communications software company Prezi. With significantly more people working and learning from home, video call presentations became the new norm. The pandemic also came on the heels of a 2019 Prezi initiative: releasing video capabilities. Between COVID-19 and a new product, Prezi experienced a staggering increase of 5,000 tickets per month in March 2020. With only 25 support agents, the company was struggling to keep up with customer needs.
Prezi was able to use its CRM platform along with Zendesk’s AI-powered Answer Bot to help automate some of its customer support issues. The bot sorted customer inquiries based on need and routed the issue to the appropriate agent or the knowledge base to get clients speedy answers. Employing automation capabilities freed up Prezi’s agents to focus on the complex issues the bot couldn’t successfully handle—without sacrificing the brand’s commitment to customer-centricity.
Automation and AI enable you to continue offering positive, personalized customer experiences during high-volume situations without having to increase your support staff. Even if your current staff is large enough to handle the volume, using customer service chatbots to resolve simpler queries allows agents to spend more time with customers who have more complicated issues.
Never miss an opportunity to do good
Being customer-centric entails showing you care about the things your customers care about. Our 2021 trends report found that 63 percent of customers prefer buying from socially responsible companies.
The pandemic offered a unique opportunity for businesses to support their customers. Fluyt Design recognized the importance of distributing accurate information during COVID-19. So, the Colombia-based creative design and communications company used Zendesk to build masuno.app, a knowledge base with over 200 fact-checked articles written by volunteers about nonprofits, mental health, and COVID support.
Other companies aimed to give back and drive change prior to the pandemic as well. In 2013, Amazon jumped on the feel-good shopping train and launched AmazonSmile. AmazonSmile users can donate a percentage of their Amazon order total to the nonprofit organization of their choice. It’s a brilliant way of making customers feel good about their purchase while also helping them make a difference. Since its launch, AmazonSmile has donated more than $215 million to nonprofits.
If you want to get your business involved in volunteering and social impact, know that it’s okay to start small. You might donate a portion of each sale to a particular charity and promote that charity on your website’s checkout page. If you have a brick-and-mortar business, consider honoring a different group of workers—such as medical professionals or teachers—with a special discount each month. Or, give back from within by offering paid volunteer hours for your employees so they can go out and make a difference in their local communities.
The bottom line is your customers want to know you care—about them, their causes, and the world around them. Generally, even the smallest efforts will pay off. Authentically embodying corporate social responsibility gives your brand a bit of humanity and your customers and employees pride of association.
Use segmentation to cater to different customer groups
Customer-centric businesses should offer different support experiences for different customer bases. Customer segmentation goes a long way in providing a personalized interaction for each buyer.
One company that uses segmentation really well is personal grocery delivery and pickup service Instacart. Its customer-centric business model made the company hyper-aware of the fact that it has two distinct customer bases to support. One is the Instacart-contracted personal shoppers who pick up and deliver the groceries; the other is the customers who are ordering the groceries. Instacart realized it needed to build two completely different support models to best serve each group.
Instacart uses its CRM as a segmentation tool, separating customers by personal shopper or buyer and keeping all analytics, interactions, and support conversations within those two verticals. Segmenting by customer type gives Instacart’s agents the immediate context they need to understand a client’s history, concerns, and previous interactions so they can provide a better customer service experience.
“When helping [Instacart users], it’s important to know contact information, recent order information, and coupon and credit balance,” says Jeremy Flanagan, customer ops project lead of tools at Instacart. “On the other hand, when helping [Instacart personal] shoppers, it’s important to know what type of shopper they are and if their status is active or dormant.”
While a CRM is the gold standard for customer segmentation, you can still categorize customers without software. Set up a simple automated phone routing menu so customers can identify themselves by your chosen segment. By drilling down to the main reason why a customer is calling, for instance, you can route them to the right agent or department.
Segmentation streamlines the support experience for both your agents and your customers, making for a more positive interaction for everyone involved. It can also help you personalize each interaction and provide a truly customer-centric experience.
Connect with customers on multiple channels
The most customer-centric companies are willing to evolve with the times and adopt a multichannel approach. Offering a variety of support channels allows you to cater to different customers’ preferred contact methods—there are notable generational differences when it comes to customer service expectations. While Millennials and Gen Z shoppers are more comfortable contacting support teams through messaging, Baby Boomers still prefer connecting by phone or email, according to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2021.
A lot of brands embraced newer support channel options during the pandemic, with over 50 percent of businesses adding messaging in 2020. When you think of companies that adopt cutting-edge tech, banks probably don’t come to mind. But the Stockholm-based digital bank Northmill is out to change that, boasting the tagline: “Building the bank of tomorrow.”
With no brick-and-mortar locations, Northmill’s customers conduct all banking business—from making a budget to applying for loans—through the company’s app. It makes for a more convenient, tailored, and transparent experience with a lot less red tape than traditional bank models.
When it came to creating positive customer support experiences, Northmill was all about offering multiple channel options. Northmill found the right solution to combine its email, chat, and phone support services in one streamlined platform: Zendesk Suite.
While Zendesk Suite allows customers to connect with companies over various channels—phone, email, messaging, and texting—it also makes it easy for agents to offer a comprehensive customer experience on any channel. The omnichannel platform transfers conversations, chat history, and context across channels, so interactions can continue seamlessly. Meanwhile, customer information is displayed in one unified place, enabling agents to provide better, more personalized support.
Northmill didn’t stop with chat, email, and phone support. To create a truly omnichannel experience, the company also built out a self-service knowledge center. Customers were then empowered to solve issues on their own instead of needing to contact support agents for every question.
Northmill’s commitment to understanding its clients’ needs and building a support platform that focused on customer-centricity led to a CSAT score of 90 percent.
If you don’t want to offer numerous support channels, take the time to understand who your buyers are and how they prefer to communicate. If you sell retirement insurance, for instance, your customers might prefer phone or chat. But if you primarily cater to the digital-native Gen Zers, offering only phone support is likely to raise some eyebrows.
Of course, the best possible case is to offer omnichannel support where buyers have a wide array of channels to choose from. If you can accommodate multiple communication platforms, consider making them all available to your audience as a way of embracing customer-centricity.
Above all else, aim to build trust
Companies that are committed to customer-centricity all have one thing in common: They prioritize earning their customers’ trust. It isn’t easy to gain, and it’s very easy to break. Most customers assume you exist only to sell products and make money, so long-term relationship building can be an uphill battle.
One company that has mastered customer relationship building is Learnsignal, a Dublin-based finance and accounting education platform. Learnsignal specializes in test prep for accounting and finance licensing exams, catering to working professionals. Students can retake courses as many times as they need to on the online platform to best prepare for their exams.
Learnsignal students are often studying for exams at night or during off-hours from their day jobs, so the company built its system around this lifestyle to best serve its customers. Learnsignal offers 24/7 support, 24/7 tutoring services, and even full-access mobile support. This last feature is critical, as 70 percent of Learnsignal students study from their phones.
Beyond making its platform convenient, Learnsignal focused on gaining and keeping customer trust. For a brand dedicated to helping students succeed, that means making the courses rigorous enough so students feel fully prepared come exam time.
“I want your [studying] experience with Learnsignal to be ... [more challenging] than your exam,” says Alan Lynch, head of education and customer services. “I think our customer experience is based on honesty and straightforwardness and not being afraid to tell students to do things that we know they don’t like doing.”
Learnsignal builds this trust with its consistent, unwavering 24/7 availability that meets students exactly where they are. The company’s always-on commitment to its customers’ success even led to one student having the second-highest score in the world on the ACCA accounting exam in 2020.
As Learnsignal proves, earning and keeping your customers’ trust is critical, especially in a support environment. To establish trust with your buyers, look for ways to ensure your agents are available at the right times and equipped with the right technology.
When customers reach out to your support agents with an issue, they’re putting their trust in your team to help them. A positive interaction can go a long way toward establishing a good, lasting relationship.
The value of customer centricity
Companies that are loyal to their customers will likely gain loyalty in return. That’s no small matter—more than half of consumers report going out of their way to buy from their favorite brands.
Becoming a customer-centric business takes time and effort, but it’s all worth it in the long run. Putting your customers in focus helps your company build better products and services to meet their expectations. And when your customers are happy, that means a happy bottom line.