Building a Customer-Oriented Company: Strategies & Examples
Illustration by Lisa Engler

Being "customer-oriented" boils down to one idea: helping people. As simplistic as it sounds, this ethos is the key to making it work as an organization.

While there are many skills you need to help customers effectively, there's a more profound outlook that informs the daily actions of customer service all-stars. The core characteristics that make a company customer-oriented add up to the ability to fulfill the ultimate purpose of helping people, regardless of challenges along the way.

In this post, we'll explore the fundamental concepts of a customer-oriented culture, give some examples of customer-oriented companies and how they function, and break down the steps of how you can encourage a customer-oriented perspective within your team and company.

What does it mean to be customer-oriented?

Being customer-oriented is an approach in which, rather than solving for the business’s needs, the company solves the customer's problems first.

Instead of focusing on the most cost-effective, accessible, or speedy method of supporting a customer, customer-oriented teams and companies are so aligned with customer needs that their customer experience feels effortless and incredible.

Many companies take a sales-oriented approach. Rather than focusing on the customers and their needs, these companies choose to do what will maximize their bottom line. This could look like a customer success team choosing to focus on churn and expansion metrics rather than product adoption scores and the stories they tell.

Other companies choose to focus on the product over focusing on their customers.

Practice saying this phrase out loud: Our business wouldn’t exist without our customers. Organizations that excel in customer orientation see their job as helping customers, not selling or servicing a product.

Customer-oriented businesses structure their whole business around the customer. So while it’s important that customer service teams understand that their actions are central to the purpose of the company, it falls to every team to carry out the vision.

Your whole company, not just your customer-facing folks, must work to do the following:

  • Understand what your customers need.

  • Know what matters to them.

  • Consider customer impact at every turn.

  • Listen to your customers.

  • Give customers what they consider valuable (rather than what your business values).

When every step of your business is centered on their needs, your customers will feel it.

5 examples of customer orientation

Now that you understand what it means to be customer-oriented, how about seeing some companies that put it into practice? Here are five examples of customer orientation and how it plays out with big-name companies.

1. Apple

Apple preemptively understands customer needs and builds for them. Take, for example, the iPod. There were similar products on the market at the time of its release, but most of them only could hold 30 or 40 songs. For most users, who were only familiar with the Walkman or portable CD players, that was sufficient.

The iPod started at 5GB of capacity and could hold 1,000 songs. It was mind-boggling, but it was exactly what people needed, without them even knowing to ask.

Not only does Apple demonstrate customer orientation through product development, but their in-store and online purchasing experiences also reflect it.

Apple encourages its employees to understand the "why" behind the purchase a customer is making. Instead of customers just coming in, choosing a computer, and leaving, Apple employees engage in conversation or "discovery" with customers during the buying process.

Apple store employees strive to understand exactly what the customer is looking to accomplish so they can leave with the best device for their needs. It's not about making more money; it's about crafting a more perfect, customized experience for each person who walks through the door.

2. Intel Corp

Intel wasn't always the household name that it is today. In fact, up until the early 2000s, they were the underdog and relied heavily on being the "best product" rather than the product that met people's needs.

They started losing out to more creative and flexible brands, like Apple, which understood more about what the end-user was doing with the machine. Rather than being prescriptive, they conducted an extensive study around business use cases and how they pertained to changing customer needs.

They went from being a company known for its excellent engineering and top-of-the-line products to being more flexible and considering more user experience aspects, like paying attention to which industry the buyer worked in, what they'd commonly be doing with the device, and even the budget they worked with.

3. Ritz Carlton

Ritz Carlton has written books on how to do customer experience well.

There are tons of customer anecdotes about the lengths that Ritz Carlton employees have gone to in order to make them feel cared for — everything from taking notes in their internal CRM about breakfast preferences and favorite wines to noting significant anniversaries like weddings or births.

It's not just about taking note of these things, though. The company empowers its employees to act on them.

Ritz Carlton grants every employee the option to use up to $2,000 per incident to resolve issues. Note that it is "per issue," not "per customer" or "per stay." Theoretically, an employee of Ritz Carlton could use this benefit multiple times in the same day for a single customer if various issues needed to be resolved.

Being customer-oriented isn’t just about knowing your customers; it’s also about empowering your employees to act on that knowledge.

4. Harley Davidson

When thinking about customer orientation, it's unlikely that this motorcycle company is one of the first that would come to mind. The fact is, though, that Harley Davidson knows how important it is to be customer-focused, especially if they hope to retain their place of excellence in the motorcycle world.

This level of care and attention to detail is represented nowhere better than in their interview process. Individuals hoping to get a job at Harley Davidson need to prove that they have knowledge and understanding of the inner workings of the bike itself, but they are also tested on their knowledge of Harley Davidson bikes in general.

The company hires people who have used their products because they are most likely to understand and be able to explain what prospective customers find meaningful and valuable.

5. UPS

In the 1980s, UPS started feeling the heat as alternative competitors to their brand began popping up. Customers simultaneously experienced more shipping needs and more available shipping options, which meant UPS had to differentiate.

To understand how they had to shift and where their customers found the most value, the company had to dive deep.

It ultimately developed 15 cross-functional teams tasked with creating solutions to problems faced by the company's largest customers. Those cross-functional teams ended up morphing into a whole new segment for UPS's business: professional services.

One of the best signs of customer orientation is shifting your business strategy to address your customers' current needs.

How to build a customer-oriented company and culture

After looking at the successful companies in the list above, it should be obvious how influential building a customer-oriented culture can be.

Beyond business success, though, it's also impactful for your users. You cultivate loyalty and trust with your customers when you show them that you care. This starts at the top.

Everyone, from your executive team down, must be committed to deliberate intent and action. They need to understand that sometimes this may mean giving up on specific short-term profits or long-term gains in lieu of cultivating customer orientation. Everyone needs to believe in the mission in order for it to work.

Here's how to go about doing that.

Cultivate high levels of empathy

Knowing how to help customers depends on your ability to empathize with their challenges. If you can understand how they feel, you can help them feel better, which is an essential part of a customer service job. Even when there's no quick fix, a dose of care, concern, and understanding can go a long way.

Gareth Goh at InsightSquared notes, "Customer service can't always deliver solutions, but it can always deliver empathy."

Being empathetic means cushioning a "no" or an "I can't help you here" with more thoughtful dialogue. For example, if you're on the phone with a disgruntled customer and you need to transfer them, imagine how they would feel and speak to that.

Unempathetic response: "I'm going to put you on hold and then transfer you, OK?"

Empathetic response: "That must be frustrating for you. I'm going to connect you with a specialist who is the best person to fix this issue. Her name is Susan, and she knows you're on the line."

When employees practice empathy for customers in every aspect of their work (whether directly related to customer service or not), they are a part of an organization built on meaningful relationships that stand the test of time.

Encourage exceptional follow-up and follow-through

The worst thing a company can do is drop the ball, failing to follow through or follow up on their customer service promises. Imagine: A customer reports an issue, and your team neither resolves it nor checks in with the customer after the fact.

This enrages customers, taking them from dissatisfied to fuming. Although following through and then following up with the customer isn't necessarily a skill set, it's a trait successful companies master. Just as people value that characteristic in a friend or colleague, they appreciate it in a customer service team, too.

In an industry where one negative customer experience can have a never-ceasing echo through social media, resolving an issue (and making sure it stays resolved) is more important than ever.

In short, follow-through shows that a company gives a hoot about the people they serve. Likewise, when organizations use automated solutions to follow through or follow up, they should feel personalized. Customers need to feel like they're communicating with a company of humans — not robots.

Hire the right people and train them up

While many people are under the incorrect assumption that to do well in support you just have to be kind, there are tons of essential skills to being an excellent support team member.

When you're looking to hire, ensure that you are interviewing for the right qualities and that customer orientation is one of them. Here are some other traits that you may want to look for when interviewing:

  • Curiosity

  • Technical aptitude or learning

  • Problem solving

  • Deescalation skills

Having engaged, excited employees creates a better experience for your customers, but it has other benefits, too! Having a deeper, more dynamic customer relationship can result in a 20% increase in sales and in your bottom line.

Your employees are your crucial customer advocates within your company. They are the best representatives for what is important and what matters to your customers, and they'll be the ones to surface any key or essential insights in company meetings.

Treating them well, giving them growth opportunities, and encouraging them to continue cultivating more loyalty is a prime marker of customer orientation.

Don't make your customer do all the work

Would you prefer that someone walk you through a customer service solution or just painlessly fix the issue for you?

Hubspot cited a Customer Contact Council survey based on 75,000 customers. It showed that most people want the job done for them. Reducing the work it takes for a customer to solve a problem has the most significant impact on customer loyalty.

The best customer-oriented teams default to taking on the onus of a problem or challenge rather than passing it back to the customer. If your customer needs a problem fixed, just do it for them, and reduce the effort your customer has to expend.

Although it's not revolutionary, this idea can have an extreme effect on your relationships with customers. Your customers are likely to feel relief rather than stress while asking for help. A willingness to make it easy (and efficient) is key to becoming a customer service-oriented team.

Create standards

How can you know that you are doing well if you have nothing to gauge it by? Setting up benchmarks for the standards you'd like to achieve with your customers is an essential step for deepening your customer orientation.

While this could take the form of metrics like CSAT or NPS, you may also choose more nuanced, multifaceted options, such as:

  • Product Adoption Score: a score that reports how much of your product’s functionality specific customers have used.

  • Customer Effort Score: a survey sent after a support interaction where a customer can rank how hard or easy it was to get their issue resolved.

  • Sales scorecards: a rubric that sales teams can use to rate how effective or ineffective specific sales calls were.

These give your team members self-guided ways to measure how customer-oriented they are and where their areas of opportunity lay. Beyond that, they give your team an understanding of how it's doing overall and where potential bottlenecks could be.

When you set standards and provide methodologies for measuring, you set up both your team and your customers for success.

Having standards also means that you can report on them. Taking the time to report on customer-oriented metrics conveys to your team that these things are of the utmost importance. Dedicating a chunk of time in your stand-ups or all-hands meetings serves to keep your customers at the top of your team’s mind.

Get universal buy-in

Say you believe customers can (and should) come first. This business model is only going to work if there's universal buy-in across your company — and that's a lot more challenging than it sounds.

As Help Scout alum Emily Triplett Lentz reported, some organizations prioritize the needs of individual silos within a company over the needs of its customers. This can lead to disjointed, ineffective customer service (even if the support staff is fantastic).

Here's a typical example: Imagine you're on the support team for a SaaS product. The salespeople push upsells to clients who wouldn't benefit from them, and outdated company policies keep you from giving refunds.

You have to deal with the fallout, and no matter how helpful you are, no one feels good about the outcome. Without universal company buy-in around customer orientation, issues like these become the norm.

On the other hand, if each employee — from company leaders and salespeople to developers and designers — all focus on helping customers, they all buy into a shared purpose. That sense of unity creates the ideal environment for customer service champions to do their jobs well.

Cross-functional teams help to deepen this buy-in. When you have different groups committed to working together toward the goal of the customer, everyone is on the same page and rowing in the same direction. Strive to set company goals at the top level that relate to your customers and their needs.

Ensure that everyone knows what your customer cares about

Most teams make a lot of assumptions about what customers do or don't want:

  • Your product team may think that they know product needs and use cases better than anyone else.

  • Your customer success and support teams might think they know exactly what the customer values regarding response time or their onboarding.

But if you don't ask customers directly and then take the time to communicate that information cross-functionally, the assumptions are likely incorrect.

Make sure you ask and then communicate across teams:

  • What are your customers' needs and expectations?

  • How far along are they in their product usage or search for the right product?

  • Which features do they like the most or which are the most important to them during the sales process?

  • Which features are they using?

  • What about your customer experience and product do they enjoy most?

With this information under your belt, your company and individual teams can make customer-oriented decisions about new strategies and how you want to move forward. It's always best to check your assumptions!

To level this up, consider having other teams interact with your customers. That way, the bottleneck of sharing information doesn’t always fall to your customer-facing teams. Implement all hands support or embed support folks in other teams to help those team members have direct contact with your customers.

Ask for and listen to your customers' feedback

No matter how much you already know about your customers and how many questions you've asked, each new customer is an opportunity to learn more. Every person is unique and has individual wants and needs, and your customers are no different.

Ask your customers regularly how they feel about your product, the relationship they have with your team, and the features you are coming out with. Regularly asking for feedback shows them that you care, thus making them more likely to come to you if they have something to share outside of the typical feedback cycle.

So many customers won't reach out to a company when something is wrong and will silently churn instead. When you've already taken the time to show them that you value their opinion, they'll be more inclined to reach out with both the good and the bad.

You don’t necessarily need to ask through traditional surveys. There are a few different ways that you can gain insights into how your customers are feeling:

  • Exit interviews

  • User testing

  • QBRs

  • Customer experience tracking like FullStory

Once you have the information, be sure to spread it throughout your company. Some companies choose to dedicate a chunk of time during their all-company meetings just to talk about direct feedback from customers.

Become customer-oriented

You do not have to reinvent your culture and restructure your entire company to be more customer-oriented. A few minor tweaks to your existing structure, strategy, or policies may be enough to push your company further into a more customer-focused zone.

Take the time to cultivate empathy amongst your team members. Then, encourage them to have strong follow-up and drive to get things done for the customer. Hire appropriately and ensure that the people you are hiring will continue to uphold the standards that you set for your team's success.

Lastly, find ways to take work off your customers’ plates. Having full-company buy-in of the work that you are doing will make the process much easier. When everyone cares about the customer, your business will naturally grow more customer-oriented.

Like what you see? Share with a friend.