The companies that are winning today — the fastest-growing companies in history that are dominating their markets, like Amazon, Dropbox, Slack, and Warby Parker — all have something in common: They’ve been able to maintain customer centricity at scale.
If you’re like many scaling companies, being customer centric early on helped make you — but as you mature, you lose some of that focus. It’s a natural gap. Customer intimacy as a five-person company and customer intimacy as a 500-person company are different.
But like everything else, when you scale, you must consciously promote a culture of customer intimacy and put in strategies and systems to safeguard it — otherwise, you’ll lose it.
What is customer intimacy?
Customer intimacy is a measure of your awareness of — and alignment with — your customers’ needs and values.
Customer intimacy goes beyond talking to customers. It’s about a two-way connection: their perception matters. And you can’t be customer centric without cultivating customer intimacy.
Customer intimacy involves a shared understanding of customer problems and needs among all team members: You are aligned on the true needs of the individual customer.
Employees understand the needs and desires of the people they are serving, and this is reflected through increased loyalty, lower churn, less internal strife, more loveable products, and more effective team decision-making.
Empirically, customer intimacy and centricity can be measured by metrics such as word-of-mouth (more), product adoption rate (high), churn (low), and NPS (growing relative score + higher than benchmark for your industry).
Customer intimacy has never been more necessary than it is today either, because growth is only getting tougher: Sales and marketing channels are 50% more expensive than five years ago, buyers have more power than at any other point in free market history, and many markets like software are hyper-competitive.
So why are customer-centric companies winning ... even in these market conditions?
They develop products that stick. They understand their customers so intimately that they can anticipate their pains, needs, and desires ... sometimes even before the customer does. From the brand of coffee they drink to their daily commute and dinner last night to their deepest fears and dreams, they truly get the people they design for and serve, making them more likely to develop rocketship products in the first place ... and more likely to keep it that way as the market grows and evolves (new customer segments, new competitors) and as needs change.
They innovate faster. Understanding customers accelerates continuous innovation. In competitive markets, those who continually seek to understand and then solve customer problems are the ones who win. With a shared knowledge of those problems, from CEO to intern, companies are more easily able to innovate. They break through and stay above the noise. They market and sell more effectively. Word-of-mouth certainly plays a role in this, but so does the connection to the customers. It dictates their marketing and sales roadmaps from the where to the how.
11 strategies to maintain customer intimacy as you grow
Maintaining customer intimacy saves you a fortune by doing the hard thing first: habitually talking to your customers and keeping their changing and evolving needs, desires, and problems front and center.
While the following list is far from exhaustive, most of these strategies can be implemented by any company — whether you’re a startup of five people or a company with hundreds of thousands of employees.
Customer conversations can take many forms, from informal customer support chats to formal customer research. But they’re rarely acted upon meaningfully unless all team members (leadership included) have the customer empathy and firsthand knowledge to internalize it.
Here are some effective ways to have customer conversations:
1. All-hands customer support
Think about how most people can watch violence in movies without batting an eyelash, but witnessing it in person often leads to stress, shock, and sometimes more complicated and long-lasting psychological issues. Reading and hearing about customer stories, problems, and complaints secondhand is not the same as experiencing them firsthand.
That’s why getting every employee, from CEO to intern, to routinely do customer support is the most effective method for building customer empathy at scale. It gives every team member time to connect and listen to customers, as well as context to understand customers better from firsthand conversations.
2. Visit your customers IRL
Seeing how your customers live their lives and how your products fit into their day-to-day is priceless for fostering empathy and customer closeness.
For most B2B companies, visiting your customer’s office makes the most sense. If you’re a mass consumer company, visiting at home likely makes the most sense. If you’re a car company, driving around with your customer on their commute may make the most sense. Pick the appropriate context and go with it.
Make a point to have team members visit at least one customer whenever they’re traveling on business.
3. Customer advisory boards (CABs)
A customer advisory board is a go-to panel of your most valued customers who perform the same function as a board of directors, only from your customer’s point of view. They’re forums for reviewing industry trends, addressing mutual challenges or opportunities, and offering unvarnished insights and guidance.
There is no better way to form a lasting, meaningful, and close connection between company leadership and your most valued customers. A good resource for setting up and running effective CABs can be found here.
4. Ongoing customer development
Formal customer interviews allow you to quantify customer conversations into accurate and reliable insights everyone can use to maintain customer intimacy. Software companies that pursue ongoing customer development achieve 30% more annual revenue growth, too. Get key people in marketing, growth, and product to conduct (or at least sit in on) at least 10 customer development interviews a month. Need more guidance on talking to customers more formally? Check this out.
Customer events let your company connect with existing customers (and nothing builds customer intimacy faster than face-to-face contact) — but they’re also a great chance to get new ones.
Customer events can take different forms, but the goal is to bring customers together, let them socialize, network, and learn from each other. The key phrase here is “each other” — the focus isn’t on you.
Invite your customers, but also empower them to bring their colleagues and friends, and reach out to any prospects in the area as well. You may even want to advertise publicly on Meetup and Eventbrite. Bringing current and potential customers together is one of the most powerful ways, if not the most powerful way, to bring in new (and well-suited) customers. In Marc Benioff’s book Behind the Cloud, Salesforce reported an 80% close rate on new prospects that attended one of their city tour events.
5. Customer meetups
For most customers, the draw of a meetup or event is to meet others like themselves. The better you facilitate this, the more opportunity you’ll have to get to know your customers as well. Use these meetups to learn about your customers and cultivate a connection.
If you have the budget, move the location around to different cities. If you don’t have the budget, or don’t have budget approval yet and need proof of concept, then hold them in the city where HQ or a major office is located. When key team members are already traveling, host one in their destination city.
You can also host virtual customer meetups or events with a virtual component to scale without budget, but there’s no replacement for the face-to-face magic that happens in person.
The most successful customer meetups feature a presentation that is either customer-led or led by a speaker who is known and admired by your customers. Mingling is a vital part of holding successful customer meetups. This is essential for your company’s learning, but, more importantly, it’s likely the reason the customers came in the first place — to meet each other. Make time for mingling, and have easily identifiable product experts mingle as well so attendees can ask them questions.
6. Host happy hours/brunches/fitness classes, etc.
Customer events with a more informal spin might include organizing or sponsoring a happy hour. If you’re in the consumer space, maybe it’s a giant outdoor yoga class or a lunchtime coffee break at a new art gallery. Whatever it is, make sure it’s on brand and that people have time to mingle.
Ensure as many team members can go as possible (although be careful not to outnumber attendees) so you can multiply the customer intimacy effect. Don’t overthink this one — nothing fussy or complicated, but keep it on brand. Drift invited everyone at SaaStr this year for a pre-conference fitness class at Barry’s Bootcamp. Nikon hosted a photo party at a hot NYC nightclub. Sephora routinely holds in-store events for their VIPs.
7. Empower customers to hold their own meetups
By empowering customers to host their own meetups, you can foster customer intimacy without spending a ton. It’s also a way to scale globally.
The downside is that maintaining customer intimacy on the company side requires contact with customers, so there is less of that here than if you were hosting. However, you can mitigate this by encouraging local team members to attend as much as possible and to watch out for meetups when traveling.
Most companies that do this well provide a bit of support, at least through their website. Product Hunt is a great example.
8. Host a customer conference
Customer conferences are a great way to maintain customer intimacy, but they require priority from the c-suite and a big investment. Many companies that hold big conferences today started with customer meetups and progressed naturally once they saw the results — Dreamforce is a prime example. There’s a reason Inbound attendees leave as Hubspot groupies.
9. Host customer dinners
Smaller, more intimate dinners are a natural strategy for any B2B company, but they can also work for B2C and can be marketed as a perk. They can be formally organized and routine, or they can happen whenever executives are on the road.
The goal here is to facilitate honest conversations, build connection and rapport, and let attendees meet each other.
Customer intimacy isn’t “set it and forget it.” Even if all the necessary steps have been taken (top-down priority, talking to your customers, etc.), keeping that connection top of mind is important during decision-making and meetings — otherwise it can all get lost in the chaos of the day-to-day.
10. Make over your office with your customers in mind
Your office doesn’t belong to you — it belongs to the people you serve. Without them, you cease to exist. So why are 99% of offices all about the company and not at all about the customers? No wonder customer centricity gets lost.
One simple way to fix this is to take pictures of your best customers and post them on walls all around the office — in the hallway, in the boardroom, in the kitchen. Salesforce calls these “hero posters.” What better way to remember the importance of customer intimacy than by weaving the lives of your customers into everyday office life?
“We proactively look for ways we can infuse our customers into our office environment and surroundings,” says Julie Hogan, VP of the Conversational Marketing Customer Team at Drift. “A customer autograph wall, photos on coffee mugs ... pictures of the humans and logos we serve. We live the brands of our customers daily ... and make that visible in the fabric of our office.”
In addition to displaying customer photos and logos in the office and turning them into swag, you might also create an open invitation for your customers to visit your offices when they’re in town. Have them sign the autograph wall that of course is featured prominently in the office!
(Always seek permission before using customer photos and logos.)
11. The empty chair
It’s easy to lose sight of the people you serve when they’re not physically represented.
Amazon is famous for leaving an empty seat at important meetings. This empty chair symbolizes the most important person in the room: the customer. To make the “empty chair” technique even more effective:
Use this strategy at every meeting in the company, not just big meetings among leaders.
Have the manager/executive physically carry the empty chair into the meeting. Everyone in the room will take notice of the physical and noisy action. It’s easier for everyone else to become complacent if they only have to leave room for an empty chair.
Maintaining customer intimacy is easier than you think
It’s easy to say you’re customer centric — it’s an entirely different thing to be customer centric, especially as you scale. Even Jeff Bezos caught investor flack early on for his customer-centric leanings.
But the proof is in the pudding now. The companies that remain most closely connected to customers are winning. And you can’t be customer centric without cultivating and maintaining customer intimacy.
Companies with high customer intimacy have a shared understanding of needs and values, driving a more loyal customer base that has higher customer lifetime values and receives more of word of mouth growth, which greatly improves metrics, investment attractiveness, and revenue.
Implementing these strategies can help — some are aimed at everyone, some at grassroots, and some at leadership. You can start by implementing just one and gradually adding more. Any incremental increase in customer intimacy is better than none; it’s not a zero-sum game.
Not all of these strategies are realistic for everyone, but there are actions you can take regardless of your budget or team size. Of course, you can’t maintain customer intimacy without a company culture that supports it. This means top-down buy-in, and grassroots empowerment. You can start deploying these strategies as a proof of concept within your department first and make the business case to the c-suite after.
You’ll see the value right away with better team morale and clarity, but also in developing better products and features, easier decision-making, faster innovation, and cutting through the noise. And you’ll be able to measure it with more word-of-mouth, better adoption rates, lower churn, and higher NPS.