10 Common-Sense Rules for a Customer-Centric Business Culture

Sanjay Poonen
Jul 26 · 4 min read

I see many companies embracing best practices for a culture of innovation, but I’m surprised how few are practicing common-sense rules of customer centricity. Throughout my career I’ve learned several ways to drive a customer-centric business culture, here are ten that every organization should follow.

1. Before Your Customers, Take Care of Your Employees First

One of my favorite professors at Harvard Business School, Len Schlesinger, teaches the principles of the service-profit chain. It’s a concept that employee satisfaction drives customer satisfaction, which in turn drives shareholder value. So, if you want to maximize customer and shareholder value, first focus on your employees. Hug your star employees. Constantly look to recruit and retain the best and brightest.

2. Two Ears, One Mouth

A doctor doesn’t prescribe a remedy before asking all the vital health questions, right? Ask as many questions as you can at the beginning of customer meetings. Too often, the sales reps or product managers will spend too long talking about their product when they should be listening to the customer. Before customer meetings, Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP and my former boss, would often tell us, “I want rabbit ears, not alligator mouths!”

3. Practice Ruthless Customer Responsiveness

I’ve heard that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos interrupts executive staff meetings to respond to customers. I encourage my teams to do the same: Respond to a customer inquiry or escalation immediately (or in less than 24 hours, if traveling)! Some teams are terrified of the customer’s wrath, but it’s an opportunity to turn rants into raves. Some of my best customer relationships were born during crises but over time developed into incredible partnerships.

4. Tie Net-Promoter Scores (NPS) to Compensation

Every customer-centric organization measures customer satisfaction. The most common metric is Net Promoter Score (NPS). Whichever metric you use, tie it to the compensation of key teams. That typically includes sales, marketing, consulting and support teams, but I often link that metric to engineering teams, too. There is no faster way to encourage engineers to care about the products they build than by basing their bonus on customer satisfaction scores.

5. Co-Innovate with Customers using Design Thinking

It is a beautiful thing when customers help build your product with you. We heavily use “design thinking” principles and customer advisory boards at VMware to engage customers in a product’s roadmap and user experience. The savviest customer-centric companies use crowdsourcing and modern customer experience techniques to stay close to the voice of the customer.

6. Don’t Just Listen to, Lead Your Customers

Don’t just listen to what customers want. Listen to what they need. There’s a difference: If Steve Jobs merely listened to customers, he would have designed the iPhone with a better keyboard experience than the other popular mobile phones at the time. Customers wouldn’t have known to ask for “zoom,” “pinch” and all the smartphone features we now love. Listen to pain points, and then lead the customer to the right solution.

7. Make it Sesame Street Simple

Every product pitch should tell a “Sesame Street Simple” story (not bullet points) that answers the most important question a customer wants to hear: Why buy your company’s product or service? Instead of a deck, practice telling the story of your product or service with words, metaphors, a narrative, a whiteboard and maybe a product demo.

8. In God We Trust, Everyone Else Brings Data

Customer-centric organizations let data guide their customer strategy. They constantly segment and analyze their customer base to decide how to best serve them. They make sure to benchmark themselves against peers and competitors as well.

9. Become a Trusted Adviser

Two common questions I get from customers are, “What are other customers in my industry doing with your products?” and “What best practices do other customers follow?” The more you become a trusted adviser to the customer, the more they trust you with their wallet. Immerse your team in customer conversations so that they can prescribe solutions rather than peddle products.

10. How Big Is Your Rolodex?

How many CxOs of Global 2000 companies could your people connect with today? How many LinkedIn connections with real decision-making power does your team have? How many CxOs’ birthdays could they list? Make sure your people know the value of their rolodex and relationships to your company.

These 10 methods work for my teams. What works for you? I’d love to hear other successful strategies for customer centricity.

Sanjay Poonen

Written by

I live and work in Silicon Valley, spanning tech, business & innovation. Love family, piano, sports and leadership. On Twitter @spoonen.

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