Ten Foundational Principles of a Customer-Centric Organization

Customer-centricity is an often misused term, but it actually has a pretty straightforward definition: put the customer at the center of all the business does. (It does not mean that we will always say “Yes” to everything the customer asks for, nor does it mean that the customer is always right.) That means that you take the time to understand your customers and then don’t make any decisions without thinking of the customer and the impact that decision has on her.

To define a customer-centric organization, I like to say: No discussions, no decisions, no designs without bringing in the customer and her voice, without asking: how it will impact the customer? how it will make her feel? what problems it will help her to solve? what value it will create and deliver for her?

To get your entire organization thinking differently, you’ve got to first know and embrace the principles and the practices of customer-centricity, and you’ve got to ensure that everyone remains aligned to achieve the desired outcomes of designing such an organization.

The following outlines the ten principles of customer-centricity that I write about in my latest book, Built to Win: Designing a Customer-Centric Culture That Drives Value For Your Business.

Principle 1: Culture is the foundation. Culture = core values + behavior. You’ve got to have the core values in place to support a customer-centric culture. A culture of customer-centricity is one that is deliberately designed to be that way. And that only happens when there’s a commitment from the top to put the customer and the customer experience front and center. It then becomes a mindset shift and a behavior shift for the organization, and, ultimately, a culture shift.

The values must be socialized and operationalized. Acceptable behaviors must be outlined to help employees and executives know what it means to be customer-centric. And no processes or policies should be developed without the values (and, hence, the customer) in mind. The same goes for when decisions are made.

Principle 2: Leadership commitment and alignment are critical to success. If your CEO doesn’t demonstrate commitment to the transformation by being the role model for how to deliver a great experience and by committing resources to achieve the goal, it won’t happen. As a matter of fact, it can’t just be the CEO; it must be demonstrated by the entire leadership team. There must be alignment across the board.

Leaders across the board must commit to putting the customer at the heart of the business. That commitment comes not only in a verbal form but also in the form of resources – human, time, capital, etc. – to show employees that “we mean business.” Commitment is real; it’s tangible.

Principle 3: Employees must be put more first. You cannot be customer-centric without putting employees more first. Who is supposed to be customer-centric? Employees. Plus, we know that the employee experience drives the customer experience, so you’ve got to design and deliver a great experience for employees first in order for them to take on customer-centric behaviors and actions.

Putting employees more first means that you will take the time to understand your employees, their needs, and their pain points so that you can design a great experience for them. This includes ensuring they have the tools, training, resources, processes, and policies to be customer-centric.

Principle 4: People before products. Customer-centric companies put the customer into all they do, including when they design products and services. For whom are you developing the product if you don’t consider the customer and understand what problems your product will solve for her?

As such, you must bring your understanding of customers’ needs, problems to solve, and jobs to be done into product design and development. Help your customer solve problems; don’t just create products and add features and functionality (which add complexity, oftentimes) without customer understanding. Find products for customers, not customers for your products.

Principle 5: People before profits. Customer-centric companies take a different stance when it comes to business. They realize that when they take care of their people, the numbers will come.

They approach business from a different lens: they focus on taking care of employees and delivering a great employee experience, understanding the employee experience-customer experience connection, and creating and delivering value for their customers and for the communities around them – knowing that the outcome is that shareholders will achieve value, too. They look at the full equation, not just on that latter component.

Principle 6: People before metrics. I often cite Bain’s delivery gap and, importantly, the reasons for that gap when I offer up this principle. When companies have a disproportionate focus on growth, i.e., acquisition over retention, then they are focused on metrics to satisfy analysts and shareholders. And when companies focus on moving the needle on their customer metrics, e.g., NPS or CSAT, they do things differently and do different things than when they focus on the people and doing what’s right for them (resulting in a moved needle).

You must shift the balance to focus more on doing what it takes to retain customers. That means focusing on the customer experience. The metrics will come.

Principle 7: Customer understanding is the cornerstone. Customer-centric companies know that customer understanding is the cornerstone of customer-centricity. You cannot bring the customer and her voice into the business if you don’t take the time to listen to her, get to know her better, and understand her pain points, problems to solve, and jobs to be done.

You can achieve customer understanding in three ways: listening (feedback and data), characterizing (research-based personas), and empathizing (journey mapping with customers).

Principle 8: Governance bridges organizational gapsGovernance has two parts: (1) The structure: It’s all about the governing body but also about establishing policies, monitoring, and enhancing the prosperity of the organization. This part covers both oversight and execution, as well as driving accountability throughout the organization by creating committees and assigning specific tasks and responsibilities to those committees. (2) The operating model: It’s also an operating model that drives execution of the customer experience vision to strategy through data democratization, socializing and operationalizing insights to action, prioritizing improvement initiatives, developing new business processes, defining success metrics, outlining the decision making process, defining the communication plan, and more.

The two parts work together to ensure that the organization works together toward a common cause, goal, and/or outcome. Governance bridges the gap between departments. It helps to break down and connect silos. It’s also the best source of that grassroots groundswell to get everyone involved.

Principle 9: Outside-in thinking and doing vs. inside-out thinking and doing are core. Customer-centric leaders must acknowledge, accept, and advocate for bringing the customer voice into all they do. That’s outside-in thinking and doing. When leaders use inside-out thinking and doing, they believe they know what’s best for customers and act on their ideas and thoughts rather than on customer feedback and input. This is the antithesis of customer-centricity!

Remove the phrase “we think customers…” from your corporate vocabulary and replace it with “we know customers…” … because you actually know customers! You’ve done the work.

Principle 10: Forget the Golden Rule. You might be shocked to read that statement, but the Golden Rule is also the antithesis of customer-centricity. It states: treat others the way you want to be treated. That’s inside-out thinking and doing; that says that you assume to know how others want to be treated, i.e., like you.

Instead, shift the behaviors and use the Platinum Rule(R): treat others the way they want to be treated. Again, you can do this because you’ve done the work to understand your customers.

That’s it. That’s all ten.

Related: Employee Listening Is a Must for a Great Employee Experience