6 Realistic Ways to Put the Customer First

Most companies have some sort of motto that echoes the “customer first” sentiment: Customer is King, The Customer is Always Right, etc. Although empty mottos may abound, there is a lack of practical information on what it exactly means to put the customer first.

Companies that excel at creating customer satisfaction thrive while others suffer, but what does this look like realistically? Rather than vague statements, companies need to implement policies and procedures to put the customer at the center of the company. Here are 6 ways your company can put your customer first.

Create a customer persona

By knowing your clientele and creating a customer profile, or persona, you can create policies and practices that will better market and cater to them. By having a clear idea of who you are working for, you can save valuable time, money and energy in your company.

Start by having a general idea of who is using your product or service. Ask yourself some questions about your target customers. Are you working with corporations, or individuals? Up- and coming start-ups, or larger, more established companies? While it is possible to have a wide range of customers, such as working with both corporations and individuals, by separating them into categories you can map out how you plan to market and service each type of customer.

Next, take things a step further by thinking through what exactly your ideal customer would want. For instance, would they prefer individualized service, or streamlined policies? Would your customer prefer speed and efficiency, or in-depth service? It might be a waste for your company to have a 24/7 customer service phone line when your customer would prefer having an in-depth FAQ on your website for their questions, or vice versa.

By knowing who you prefer to and actually do business with you can stop running in circles and wasting time trying to appease everyone. You can concentrate on what your typical customer wants and anticipate their needs.

Empower your customer service to bend the rules

Allowing the front line of customer service to make judgement calls will create an environment where everyone is working to help the customer, rather than making them feel helpless in being empathetic and accommodating to the customer. By allowing customer service to bend the rules, your employee will feel empowered to bypass a policy if it is in line with company values (fairness, for example).

It also will keep them from feeling enslaved to strict policy and sending every customer complaint to management. By handling special situations rather than sending them along, the front line of customer service will save management time and energy.

However, empowering customer service does not mean simply allowing customer service to give away goods. Having a set policy that allows customer service to do so will often result in a loss of revenue. Empowering customer service means allowing them to make judgement calls based on individual situations.

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Training customer service with “if-then” planning allows them to make judgement calls without wasting either management or the customer’s time. Also known as implementation intention , “if-then” planning gives customer service general guidelines that can used in various situations (such as if the customer has been waiting longer than 10 minutes to see a salesperson, then offer a beverage). It allows customer service to anticipate a customer’s needs and increase the customer’s satisfaction.

Start all hands support

The needs of the customer should not stop at sales or customer service. Whether a part of IT, management, or Human Resources, having a sense of the customer’s concerns, needs and wants will create a more focused and customer-centric company.

Amazon is an excellent example of creating an environment that centers around the customer. It is a requirement that everyone takes a turn working in customer service no matter their department. CEO Jeff Bezos believes that it creates better empathy for the customer, so every year even the upper management will take the time to be trained in customer service.

By having the entire company work in customer service at some point, everyone gets a chance to listen to the customer and get a clear idea of what they want. It can then shape every aspect of the company from how management creates policies to how IT writes code. The best way to allow employees to put customers first is by allowing everyone a chance to listen to the customer.

Spread symbols of customer focus

Symbols can be powerful reminders to employees of the company’s values. It can shift focus and reinforce a customer-centric environment.

Again, Amazon provides a powerful example. During its early days, Bezos would put an empty chair in every meeting to represent the customer. It served to reinforce to everyone in that meeting exactly who they were working for and needed to impress. Currently, they have employees trained to represent the customer’s opinions and concerns. Executives must pitch their ideas to that person and win them over first and foremost.

pyramid of frontline employees, middle management and top management
The inverted management pyramid.

The Inverted Pyramid can also serve as a powerful symbol that reinforces company values. It was famously re-instituted by The Home Depot CEO Frank Blake while turning the company around after the 2007 recession.

In the Inverted Pyramid, the CEO and upper management are placed at the bottom, where they support front-line employees who all ultimately support the customer. Having a visual symbol such as the pyramid where employees can regularly see it (such as the break room) emphasizes the company values (such as the concept of servant-leadership) in a very practical way. It also serves as a constant reminder the employees support each other to serve the customer.

Promote transparency

It is the unfortunate reality of business that it is not always possible to accommodate every customer request. Customers can become irate and unreasonable. Sometimes too many customers have too many requests. In these cases, sticking to a “customer is always right” policy can have a detrimental effect on the company.

When you cannot give the customer what they want, it is important to give them a clear reason why and handle the situation with transparency. Customers want to feel heard and considered even if their requests are not granted. Letting the customer know why the current policy is in place allows them to get the bigger picture.

Most customers will be more understanding if they are given a reason. Harvard conducted an experiment in which three types of people asked to cut in line for a copy machine: one that simply asked to cut, one that asked to cut because he was in a rush, and one that simply explained he needed to cut to make copies. In the first version, 60% of people let him cut. In the second, 94% of people allowed the researcher to cut and 93% of people let the researcher in the third version cut, even though he gave a non-reason.

graph about relation between reasons for cutting in line and success rate

As the study demonstrates, the reason itself is not as important as simply having one. Even if it may not make much sense to the customer, they will often appreciate the transparency.

Likewise, studies have shown that customers are more likely to be patient if they can see progress being made on their behalf. Called the labor illusion , customers will not be upset waiting if they feel that they are not being ignored and can see that work is being done for them. Transparency can overcome many customer service hurdles and will put the customer at ease.

Ask the 5 Whys

Developed by Taiichi Ōno and used by Toyota, the 5 Why technique allows customer service to get to the root of any problem that might arise and help prevent it from happening again. Rather than superficially dealing with a problem situation, the 5 Why Technique requires that they continue to ask why a situation arose to better shed light on the policies and processes that could be a problem. It is so-named because it typically takes 5 “why’s” to get to the main cause of a problem.

The outcome of using the technique depends on the knowledge and persistence of the people involved. The purpose is not to lay blame with any one person, but rather to see if there are certain policies or procedures that are not working well or perhaps do not exist. By getting to the core of the problem, it allows companies to invest in assessing and tweaking their processes only when needed.

Putting the customer first means more than giving in to every customer demand. It takes a detailed analysis of the very company structure. It is important to first know who your customer is: understand their questions, needs, and concerns to best market and cater to them.

Every member of the company must be involved and thoughtful, and even the front line of customer service needs to be equipped to anticipate the customer’s needs. Be clear and upfront with customers so that they can understand what is going on and why. Also, look deeply at processes and policies through the 5 Why Technique.

It is this sort of “Customer First” company that truly leaves customers satisfied and businesses thriving rather than spouting empty mottos that causes other companies to flounder.

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