Customer focus sounds simple enough. How hard is it to truly care about a person who’s responsible for your profits and paycheck?

But as intuitive as it sounds, there aren’t a lot of companies getting this pitch perfect.1 Many businesses think they’re customer-centric, but they’re really not. The CMO Council reports that “only 14% of marketers say that customer centricity is a hallmark of their companies, and only 11% believe their customers would agree with that characterization.”
Where’s the gap?

Delivering an unforgettable customer experience—the kind that explodes metrics and wins awards—is, unfortunately, not just about customer service at all. As a company that’s helped companies deliver award-winning customer experiences, we know it begins well before your brand is even a twinkle in your customer’s eye.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  1. What does “customer focus” mean exactly?
  2. Why is it important?
  3. How to create a customer focus strategy for your business in 6 steps
  4. Examples of customer-focused companies—and how they do it

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What does “customer focus” mean exactly?

“There are many ways to center a business,” said Jeff Bezos in a letter to his shareholders in 2016. “You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more.” The founder of Amazon is famously, obsessively customer-focused, sometimes to the detriment of profits and retailers.

Being customer-focused means knowing your customers deeply—needs, wants, likes, dislikes, and all—and having a plan to make them happy. It’s not more than just lip service.

If you’re customer-focused, likely you’ve placed your customer at the heart of all your business decisions and operations across every department. In customer-focused companies, every single individual from the top brass to customer service reps knows their company’s target audience well—and is constantly thinking about how to serve them better.

Why is customer focus so important?

For decades, academics and business veterans have been harping on about the importance of putting customers first. There’s Fred Riechheld’s oft-quoted finding that it can be anywhere from five to 25 times more expensive to acquire a new customer than to keep an existing one.2

And there’s the simple fact that the world is teeming with choices for consumers, which means it’s getting harder and harder for businesses to differentiate themselves from competitors.

Research shows that, although other factors like branding and product features are important, customer support and the quality of customer interactions account for more than a whopping 50% of variance in customer satisfaction.3

People will always remember how you make them feel. And that’s the edge that your neighborhood deli has over the giant chain store—it might just have two brands of mustard instead of a dozen, but Mr. Katz will always remember your order and how you like your sandwich cut.

The thing is, achieving that level of intimacy and friendliness in your customer relations isn’t just a nice fuzzy thing to dream about during charged vision and mission meetings. Customer experience (CX) is, as Gartner refers to it, “the new marketing battlefront.”

Customer-centric companies are 60% more profitable than companies that don’t focus on customers.4 According to the 2017 Gartner Customer Experience in Marketing Survey, more than two-thirds of marketers responsible for CX say their companies compete mostly on the basis of CX.5

And it all begins with customer focus.

💡Pro-tip:

What customer service apps should a small business look into?

How to create customer focus in 6 steps

The textbook definition of customer-centricity is “a strategy that aligns the development and delivery of a company’s products and services with the current and future needs of its highest valued customers in order to maximize these customers’ long-term financial value to the firm.”6

And strategy has to go beyond just making plans and forecasts, wrote Gene Cornfield and Mark Bonchek for the Harvard Business Review in 2016. “Strategy also has to build capabilities, transform culture, and architect for constant change.”7 So how do you go about building an effective customer focus strategy?

1. Get to know your customers

You can’t deliver a customer-focused experience without knowing your customer, and by this, we don’t mean your “average customer,” or even the one with the most purchasing power. We’re talking about the customer who unlocks the maximum value in your business. For Google, that might be people who appreciate technology; for Apple, it’s people who appreciate elegance and simplicity in design.

Once you’ve zeroed in on your company’s best customer, get to know them. Gather granular, actionable data points and customer experience analytics by studying the patterns in their purchasing and behavior and using ethnographic methods, customer surveys, and other tools. How loyal are they? How do they communicate with one another? How do they decide what product to choose?

💡Pro-tip:

A starting point is the 3 Ps that Wharton professor Peter Fader mentions in The Customer Centricity Playbook:

  • Preference – The degree to which a customer chooses your offering over a competitor’s and how well your offering aligns with their needs
  • Propensity – The actions of your customers (their likelihood of being loyal, of referring others, of buying higher-valued offerings, and so on)
  • Potential – The future monetary value of each customer8

Chances are, your business doesn’t have just one “primary” customer. If this is the case, Harvard professor Robert Simon recommends that “…businesses split into separate units and adopt for each (unit) the configuration that best allows it to focus resources on the needs of its primary customer.”9

2. Identify SMART goals

Set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goals. One example of a customer focus goal could be to improve upon specific customer service KPIs. It could be customer retention, lifetime value, or even just improving specific things like your Net Promoter Score (NPS) or Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) scores.

Your research into your customers from the previous steps will also reveal pain points—do they feel like they wait too long while on the phone with customer service?
When you call a company's customer service line, how long is too long to wait on hold?
Break big-picture visions into smaller steps and milestones. Share your customer-centric goals with your employees and bring them on board. Explain where they fit in and incorporate these targets into their goals.

3. Map out all your touchpoints with customers 

What are all the points in which your customer interacts with your brand? This map should illustrate the customer journey from pre-purchase to post-purchase and beyond and cover all the channels available to your customer (face-to-face, automated chatbots, email, social media, telephone, etc). It’s crucial that every single interaction a customer has with your company is a positive one, especially if you’re providing online customer service.

Take a step back, look at your map and look for the bottlenecks. Which interactions could benefit from being made more efficient? Are your customers reaching out on social media mostly, or through the phone?

If, like most companies, you’ve got customers who contact you in different ways, then it might be good to look into customer service software that lets you handle all these messages in one easy place. Like this:

💡Pro-tip:

Are your digital response teams organized by communication channel? Try this more efficient and consistent method instead—organize them according to competency (like troubleshooting and technical assistance) instead. For instance, you could use a tool like RingCentral’s Engage Digital to provide truly omnichannel customer service (and make keeping up with your customers a breeze).

4. Build a dream team (encourage collaboration and sharing of info)

It can be tempting to think that customer service or marketing teams can do all the heavy lifting when it comes to customer experience. But that’s simply not enough anymore.

According to Gartner, “… CX outcomes tend to diminish when marketing or any other single department attempts to lead and execute CX alone.” CX is a team sport in the sense that your strategy has a much better chance of succeeding when every single employee is on-board and aligned on customer-centricity, and can collaborate smoothly and freely share team knowledge.

5. Get a winning tech stack

Keeping up with hundreds (or if you’re lucky, thousands) of customers is messy, tedious work—but not if you have the right tools for the job. A good communication tool can take a ton of work off your plate and power every stage in your journey to achieving your goals—from data collection to communicating with customers to keeping track of crucial metrics.

💡Pro-tip:

As you’re building your tech stack, one big thing to keep in mind is that your tools should “talk to each other.” That means that they should integrate easily, which will take a lot of tasks off your plate. For instance, if you’re using Zendesk and it integrates with your phone service (say you’re using RingCentral), it could let you make and receive customer calls right from your Zendesk dashboard. No time wasted on switching between tools and windows.

One of the biggest reasons to use technology is because it makes you and your team more productive. Take advantage of those features! Try to find opportunities where you can use task automation and look into workflow management tools, which can help keep your team on track and aligned on projects.

6. Track performance and make small improvements over time

Even with the best-researched, most exhaustively detailed strategy, the struggle is still going to lie in implementation. Because customer focus is a long-term game, you’ll have to be prepared to make small adjustments.

Stay on track by aggressively measuring the outcomes of the initiatives and tactics you implement. Don’t be afraid to change course halfway if something’s not working out.

Examples of customer-focused companies—and how they do it

As competitive as the market is, the great thing about it is that every business, just like the customers it serves, is unique. When done right—and when the leadership is deeply reflective and grounded in their “why” (and the why is to serve their customers)—it’s easier to achieve and sustain customer-centricity.

Here’s a quick look at how some companies are walking their talk and excelling at customer focus.

1. PipelineDeals

PipelineDeals, an award-winning CRM platform for small and mid-sized businesses, is recognized as one of the fastest growing companies in the US and has been part of the annual Inc. 5000 list since 2014. With more than 18,000 users worldwide, PipelineDeals prides itself on the fact that unlike typical software as a service (SaaS) companies, whenever a customer calls them up, it’s always a human, and not an automated menu, that answers.

How do they do it?

PipelineDeals achieves this through what co-founder JP Werlin refers to as a “tech care stack,” at the center of which is an effective and reliable phone system.

2. Continental Airlines

Here’s a slightly paradoxical example, but one that shows the kind of time and effort it takes to really overhaul a company’s customer experience. Years before it merged with United Airlines in 2012, Continental Airlines had famously discovered that its customer service was a mess, costing the company millions of dollars annually.

It promptly got to work consolidating all of its customer interaction data, bringing it to a common platform that reps could access easily.

It took six to nine months to aggregate the information as it came in from the finance, marketing, operations, and other units alone, and more than four years to capture and analyze the data at a granular level—the very first step to developing a customer focus strategy.10

3. Mattermost

Mattermost is a remote company that’s embedded customer focus into the DNA of its company culture. Mattermost’s handbook treats customer obsession as a key leadership principle and the company’s “why.”

There is a detailed section in the handbook with a complete guide for customer success—paving the way for consistency and clarity in customer service. The company frames everything from hiring to finance in the context of customer service, refusing to call its all-hands meetings anything other than “customer obsession meetings” to remind employees of its “atypical and uncommon focus on customers.”

These meetings—held not quarterly or even monthly, but weekly—focus on increasing alignment and awareness of how the company, departments, teams and individuals serve customers.11

4. Pinterest

Here’s something any business can learn from the creator of the addictive visual moodboard tool, Pinterest.

Want an amazing, seriously customer-focused product? Have the CEO obsess over user experience.

At Pinterest, founder Ben Silbermann spends a lot of time on the app, downloading and re-downloading it several times to put himself in the shoes of a first-time user.

Data shows that 59% of companies with a CEO who is involved in customer experience report higher revenue growth, compared to just 40% of companies without a customer-focused CEO reporting growth.12

5. Chick-fil-A

Fast food chain Chick-fil-A has been topping the restaurant segments of the American Customer Satisfaction Index consistently for years, and this year will be for the sixth time—even as restaurants around the world struggle with the pandemic.13

Family-owned Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays, has a third of the average employee turnover rate, and is the second-largest quick-service chain in the country.14 In spite of its scale, it’s managed to retain the personal touch and charm of a small standalone neighborhood restaurant.

It does this with a solid corporate purpose statement: To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A. Employees and franchise owners of Chick-fil-A are provided titles like Leader, Influencer, and Stakeholder and given an uncommon amount of autonomy, support, and training to perform their best.

Not only that, franchises aren’t pitted against one another competitively—rather, they’re all encouraged to see one another as a team and learn from each other. Chick-fil-A is also known for flying top performers to struggling ones to facilitate a mentor-mentee, coaching relationship.

The lesson here? Invest in your team.

A customer focus strategy is just the start

To build an effective customer focus strategy, you don’t necessarily need fancy loyalty programs and expensive initiatives. It’s about laying a strong foundation for your business to be able to win customers’ hearts from the first swipe of their card (ideally even before that).

If your business isn’t yet focused on your customers, bear in mind that high-performing companies take five to 10 years to achieve consistently high levels of customer satisfaction,15 so if you’re serious about this initiative, don’t wait!

Last note: as you embark on the task of executing your strategy, don’t neglect the other factors critical to CX success: a committed leadership, dedicated and engaged employees, the right tech, and company culture. These will be the engines that can bring your customer focus strategy to life.


1 theacsi.org/news-and-resources/press-releases/press-2020/press-release-national-acsi-q4-2019
2 go.forrester.com/blogs/profiting-from-post-sale-marketing
3 researchgate.net/publication/297430749_How_to_Drive_Customer_Satisfaction
4 deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/de/Documents/WM%20Digitalisierung.pdf
5 gartner.com/en/marketing/insights/articles/key-findings-from-the-gartner-customer-experience-survey
6 The Customer Centricity Playbook by Peter Fader
7 hbr.org/2016/04/focus-on-keeping-up-with-your-customers-not-your-competitors
8 The Customer Centricity Playbook
9 hbr.org/2014/03/choosing-the-right-customer
10 hbr.org/2005/04/the-quest-for-customer-focus
11 handbook.mattermost.com/operations/operations/company-cadence
12 perspectives.eiu.com/sites/default/files/Genesys_Executive_Summary_-_GLOBAL_FINAL.pdf
13 theacsi.org/news-and-resources/press-releases/press-2020/press-release-restaurants-2019-2020
14 sas.com/en_us/insights/articles/marketing/a-lesson-in-customer-service-from-chick-fil-a.html
15 psychology.org.au/inpsych/2017/june/cotchett