The Fundamentals of a Customer-First Service Approach

Today, every company is a customer service company. No matter what industry you're in or which products or services you offer, providing stellar service is what will help you rise above the pack. According to a recent survey, 80 percent of service leaders say that emerging technology is raising customers' standards when it comes to their domain.

Beefing up traditional customer support is not enough; organizations that want to thrive must adopt a service model that puts the customer first. The classic approach focuses squarely on solving problems as efficiently as possible, closing the case, then moving on to the next, not necessarily understanding who that customer is and building a relationship. In contrast, the customer-first approach is personalized, tackles what's happening now—ideally getting out ahead of problems before they even occur—and prioritizes making the customer happy in the long-term.

For example, say I check into a hotel with my family, and we find that our shower is broken. A traditional service approach would focus on getting maintenance to fix the problem as quickly as possible. On the other hand, a customer-first approach would still get the shower repaired as soon as possible, but would prioritize doing so in a way that minimizes my family's inconvenience, such as not intruding when we're sleeping. Hotel staff would also go one step further by apologizing and assuring me that the next time I visit one of the company's properties, the shower will be checked before I arrived. The goal is not only to resolve the issue, but also to ensure that I, the customer, feel that the company knows me, values me, and truly learns from its mistakes.

Why It Pays to Prioritize the Customer

The customer-first approach runs counter to the traditional view of customer service departments as a necessary cost of doing business. Agents were measured on how quickly they could complete an interaction, since that equated to money saved. Today, smart companies recognize that there's much more value in treating customers in a way that will keep them coming back, even if the interactions take more time or cost more. Consumers have more options than ever before and are increasingly choosing based on the experiences companies provide, not just the quality of their products and services. Personalized and consistently superior customer service breeds brand loyalty. And companies are in a better position than ever to adopt a customer-centric approach, thanks to the volume and nature of data many customers are willing to share if they get a better experience in return.

How to Transform Your Company's Service Model

Making the customer-first approach a reality at your organization requires providing service that is:

1. Everywhere

Historically, service teams have been set up to provide support only after customers have made a purchase and only through a limited set of company-approved channels. Under the new approach, service becomes a critical part of every stage of a customer's journey, from pre-purchase to point of sale to post-purchase. That shift requires the service team to think beyond traditional channels, such as phone and email, to meet customers where they are. That could mean providing content for third-party sites where customers research products or engaging with them on social media platforms where they share praise and complaints. When the goal is providing a personalized experience and building a relationship, it makes sense to deliver service on the customer's terms.

2. Everyone's responsibility

Traditionally, there has been a hard line separating service teams from marketing, sales, and other units. Becoming customer-driven requires moving from thinking departmentally to thinking organizationally. Customers aren't thinking about organizational charts when they interact with a company; all they perceive, and associate with the brand, is the experience they have. To make seamless and personalized engagement possible, service teams need to have access to data from across the company. Whether that's the marketing campaigns to which a customer responded in the past or past purchases, all of that information will empower the service agents to build a more complete customer profile and improve the service they deliver. And everyone in the company, regardless of title, has a role to play in customer service., the online shoe retailer, has reaped the rewards of focusing on customer service as an enterprise-wide priority. The company urges representatives to talk to customers as long as necessary to leave them satisfied, recognizing that it's a chance to inspire loyalty and create sales and marketing opportunities.

3. Proactive, not reactive

A customer-first mentality doesn't mean only waiting until a customer has an issue to take action. Thanks to the growth of connected devices, companies can make a bigger impact by proactively getting ahead of problems. For example, Jacuzzi, the hot tub maker, uses sensors to monitor tubs and identify maintenance issues before a customer notices them. This ensures that Jacuzzi customers always get the best possible experience when using their hot tubs, and it opens up all new revenue streams for Jacuzzi, which can now move beyond just selling the actual hot tubs to selling the necessary parts, filters, and chemicals to ensure the machine continues working. As smart devices continue to proliferate, soon the bar will be set so high that when a customer calls to tell you something is broken, you've already lost.

4. Hyper-personalized

Under a customer-first model, a company isn't just interacting with an anonymous individual, or even one who falls into a certain demographic. Rather, based on rich data insights, it recognizes and understands the specific person and his history with the brand. For example, some healthcare providers can monitor patients who have heart conditions on a daily basis through a wearable EKG monitor. They can discover anomalies as they happen and provide real-time, hyper-personalized care. Those patients are getting an unparalleled service experience and, as a result, are unlikely to switch providers anytime soon.

The Win-Win at the End of the Tunnel

Modernizing service organizations won't be easy, and it won't happen overnight. It requires shifting to a mindset that is driven by data, cultivating experiences, and the humans on the other end of the interaction. It will also demand restructuring organizations and implementing new technologies. But the payoff will be more than worth it, leading to happier customers, more satisfied employees, and a healthier business.

Bill Patterson is an executive vice president at and general manager of Salesforce Service Cloud.