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Why a customer-first strategy is good for your brand — and bottom line

Posted June 20, 2018
Chalkboard that says customer service

A great product or service will always bring in customers. Keeping them, however, is more challenging in today’s consumer-focused society. How you deliver a product or service — including how it makes people feel when they buy it — can be the difference between success and failure for many brands.

Thanks to new technologies, increased brand awareness driven by social and digital media, and more intense local and global competition, many companies recognize the importance of a customer-first mentality. Their mission not only includes offering more of the goods and services consumers crave, but also delivering them in a more seamless and enjoyable way.

Providing great customer experience (CX) is now considered table stakes in most industries. “It used to be that your product was a competitive advantage. Then your delivery and logistics, and then the service. It’s not that anymore,” says Curtis Bingham, founder and CEO of the Chief Customer Officer Council. “Now, the competitive advantage we are looking at today is an ability to intimately understand customers and delivering against their needs in a way they value — and doing it faster than your competitors.”

How to balance CX and a company’s objectives

The customer-first mindset is paying off for brands that incorporate it into their culture. Oracle and Euromonitor International’s report, Reinventing the Customer Experience in the Era of the Connected Consumer, notes that a better customer experience — as measured through improved Net Promoter Scores (NPS) — helps to boost revenue, profits and customer retention. Research from multiple market-intelligence authorities, including McKinsey and Medallia, found that brands able to improve their customer experience enjoyed increased revenues and lowered costs. Understanding the benefits of great customer service is one thing, but proper execution is much more challenging. For a customer-first strategy to be successful, Bingham says it must align with the company’s overall objectives set by the board and senior management. “The most successful chief customer officers, and other customer executives, are those that can find a balance between the customer and the business,” Bingham says.

To help strike a proper balance, Bingham recommends having at least one person at the decision-making table who champions the consumer. “You need someone to ask, ‘How does this decision affect our customer?’” he notes, adding that too often the focus is on other areas such as costs or regulatory risks. “Nobody really sits down and says, ‘What’s the customer impact?’”

Regardless of the outcome, answering the question helps companies better manage the results. “If it’s positive, you can leverage it,” Bingham says. “If it’s negative, you can communicate that to customers. Here’s the decision, ‘This may adversely affect you.’ It allows you to mitigate the response.”

Bingham points to JetBlue Airways, which saw its NPS drop amid delays on the tarmac that were outside of its control. To address it, Bingham says the airline had the pilots come out of the cockpit and explain the issue to passengers on the plane. “It all but nullified the negative impact on their NPS,” Bingham says. “Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news… but it’s actually a good opportunity to show customers, ‘Here are the options we considered, here’s why we chose to do this and this is how we plan to help lessen the impact on you,’” he says.

A customer-first strategy, however, does not mean the customer is always right, Bingham says. He cites the example of e-commerce giant Amazon, which according to recent reports is banning a few customers it believes are abusing its liberal return policy. Brands need to balance between delivering a customer experience that doesn’t sacrifice the well-being of their business.

‘Wiring humanity’ into your business model

To help deliver a great customer experience, brands need to better understand their customers as well as their changing needs and tastes.

Jeanne Bliss, founder and president of CX consultancy firm, CustomerBliss, and co-founder of the Customer Experience Professionals Association, says that successful CX is when a brand “wires humanity into the business model.”

To help brands do better, Bliss says she challenges them to make business feel personal by treating their customers like they would their own family. She asks them to narrow it down to one simple question: “Would you do that to your mother?” (which, incidentally, is also the name of her book.)

Bliss says brands can “make Mom proud” by giving customers the treatment they desire, and empowering employees to deliver a great customer experience. That includes rethinking business practices and turning “gotcha” moments into “we’ve got your back” moments.

Bliss references eyeglass company Warby Parker’s 30-day no-questions-asked return policy, noting that the company’s ground rule is to treat customers — and employees — the way you’d want to be treated. “Through a culture and operation built on value, trust and personality, the number-one driver of sales for Warby Parker is word of mouth,” Bliss writes. The result is an NPS of 84 — well above other optical retailers — and an estimated 20-percent increase in sales in 2017. “While other retailers are closing stores, they are opening more,” Bliss says.

In her book, Bliss offers a five-step plan for brands looking to develop customer-first strategies: Hire and trust good employees; figure out what frustrates consumers and fix it; focus on how to help customers achieve their goals; rise above the competition with more consumer-friendly pricing and/or policies; and ensure your company’s current actions and behaviors are aligned with these goals.

In the end, brands need to create holistic, human customer experiences to succeed. Designing a customer-first strategy that delights and retains customers requires examining the biggest pain points from both consumer and company perspectives. Only once those have been identified can a company understand where it must focus in order to do better.

How will brands know when they’ve got it right? When their customers come back — and bring their family, friends and acquaintances with them.

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