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.

Syfe used customer-first strategies to scale support for 100,000 users

Syfe is a Singapore-based fintech company that needed an efficient way to manage customer queries and help users in their preferred communication channels.

Initially, Syfe relied on an email inbox and a phone line to manage consumer interactions. As the company grew its portfolio management services, the business soon realized a change was needed.

“With such a large volume of tickets from all over the world, our customers wanted to reach us through various communication channels,” says Jack Prickett, head of operations at Syfe. “We needed a solution to bring all these channels together and help us manage customer support effectively.” That solution was Zendesk.

Through our unified platform, Syfe gained the ability to serve customers effectively through chat, calls, email, Facebook, and WhatsApp. By aggregating communication channels, the support team could provide fast, personalized, and consistent service on customers’ preferred channels, leading to shorter ticket times, an improved CX, and a more satisfied customer base—one that soon skyrocketed to 100,000 individuals in Singapore alone.

Today, Syfe bridges communication channels and geographies, and as the company grows, it continues to rely on customer-first initiatives. Prickett shares, “In Hong Kong, we’ve launched our wealth offering that helps users make automatic investment plans. Zendesk enables us to filter and tag incoming queries based on these locations and establish workflows. This lets us serve different entities in one place.”

By viewing its business through the eyes of its consumers and being proactive with customer service objectives, Syfe expanded its business while keeping the customer at the center of it all.

Learn more about Syfe’s success with Zendesk.

Thrasio combined customer service and cross-selling to increase revenue while decreasing customer resolution time by 99 percent

Thrasio is a global consumer goods company that needed to streamline its customer service and agency efficiency—all while creating cross-sell and upsell opportunities.

As a popular Amazon seller, Thrasio sells thousands of different products in many verticals across Amazon’s global marketplaces through direct-to-consumer and brick-and-mortar operations.

“We were on a trajectory for major growth, and high-functioning customer experience was crucial to that growth,” says Gershwin Exeter, vice president of global services at Thrasio. Understanding the importance of customer-first initiatives, Exeter realized a hard CX reset was needed to optimize its people, processes, and tech.

With this end goal in mind, Thrasio leveraged the Zendesk Suite to enhance the performance and efficiency of agents and used Zendesk Sell to compile data and create rich, sophisticated customer profiles. Through this transformation, the team could determine consumer intent, compliance, and trends to optimize their CX and ramp up successful cross-selling initiatives.

Overall, the investment in Zendesk vastly improved Thrasio’s ticketing process, too—the company decreased initial customer response time from 26 hours to 42 minutes (a 97 percent decrease) and cut full resolution time from 221 hours to 54 minutes (a 99 percent decrease).

With its new tech stack and wealth of data, Thrasio proactively creates opportunities that drive B2C revenue, B2B revenue, and reconciliation recovery.

Learn more about Thrasio’s success with Zendesk.

Unity Technologies saves $1.3 million and improves the customer experience with automation and self-service capabilities

Unity is a development platform that needed to address an increase in ticket volume after explosive growth between 2019 and 2020.

As the world’s leading development platform for interactive, real-time 3D content, Unity supports creators across the gaming, animation, automotive, and architecture industries. After a 56 percent increase in new customer tickets, the company needed ways to scale support without taking on the burden of more salaries and staff.

One such method came from identifying the source of ticket traffic. After noticing a huge spike in support tickets coming from the ads team in 2020 and 2021, David Schroeder, the senior manager of services support, used Zendesk ticket forms and fields to locate the cause: fraudulent events from invalid Unity Ads users.

Instead of hiring more people, Schroeder introduced an ad fraud web form via Zendesk. Information collected in those forms could help the team decide whether users would retain access to Unity or be locked out for a violation. As a result, tickets were routed from the Zendesk ads queue to one Unity agent, who quickly reviewed the web forms and made a one-touch decision that handled 95 percent of those tickets.

“Zendesk tools enabled us to quickly recognize a large increase in ticket volume, identify the cause, and create steps to mitigate the problem,” says Schroeder. “Without Zendesk, our support team would have stayed underwater.”

Adding Zendesk automation and self-service options helped Unity to deflect ticket volume, reduce handle time, and build time-saving workflows across the support team—all while avoiding costs associated with new hires.

With the goals of improving the customer service skills of their current staff and delivering proactive experiences, Unity increased first response time by 83 percent overall while also reporting cost savings of $1.3 million.

Learn more about Unity’s success with Zendesk.

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.

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.

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.

Download the report