Being focused on customers isn’t a unique organizational trait. Almost everyone in business claims to be customer-focused in one form or another. Some even consider the term cliché. contributing editor Jeff Haden cited it as culprit number 1 on his list of 10 Tired Business Clichés You Should Never Use Again.

Jeff Haden,

Naturally, stating an intent to be customer-focused and actually being customer-focused are two different things. Sometimes the right thing for your client doesn’t align with the right thing for your organization. This is when having a customer-focused culture truly matters—when the right move is to do the hard thing in the short term for the best outcome for the client in the long term.

Furthermore, when you look closely at a team that authentically embraces a focus on customers you will observe some uniquely advantageous cultural attributes.

Customer focus starts with curiosity

The first cultural element is curiosity. Being better able to serve your customers starts with your ability to better understand them and to learn what they are trying to accomplish and why. There are frameworks that can help organizations analyze feedback to define their goals and behaviors, but none of that will help unless you have an underlying curiosity and desire to learn more.

In a previous role, I was supporting the quality organization in a large aerospace company. (Quality is always critical when you’re talking about building components that fly through the air at 35,000 feet.) I was backfilling for an IT leader who had focused on controlling cost and scope but did not have a reputation for delivering the results his business counterpart truly cared about. My first step was to shadow the business counterpart and his team as they performed their job.

By living in their world for a period of time, it became clear to me how passionate they were about ensuring the safety of the components our company was receiving from suppliers. This drove me to completely reprioritize all of my team’s work to better catch inspection concerns through the software, as opposed to IT’s goal to lower ticket response time. I was able to justify my decision with IT senior leadership and, in doing so, earned the respect of the internal customer because I’d been curious about his team’s motivations.

Curiosity Action Plan

  1. Encourage team members to spend time shadowing customers.
  2. Help team members build a deep understanding of what customers are trying to accomplish and why.
  3. Challenge your previous assumptions about customers’ processes and goals. Approach the exercise with an open mind.

Customer focus requires empathy

The journey doesn’t end at curiosity. Understanding what your customer is trying to accomplish and how they go about it is just the first step. The next step to enable the creation of customer value is empathy. Through empathy, you are able to genuinely feel your customers’ pain points and high points.

Building empathy has value on multiple levels. If you regularly interact with your customers, an empathetic interaction helps to build a foundation of trust. Trust allows for considerably more room to test out ways to offer solutions. What’s even more valuable is that by feeling the frustrations and challenges of your customers, you’re able to deliver considerably better outcomes and high-quality service.

Empathy is contagious: people ‘catch’ each other’s care and altruism.”

Harvard Business Review

In my previously mentioned IT Quality role, one of my customer segments was a helpdesk team supporting suppliers trying to use our supplier-facing web application. From the suppliers’ point of view, any issue encountered on this web portal was an obstacle preventing them from collecting revenue on the parts they were shipping. As a result, my customers were not always treated very respectfully.

I was able to spend considerable time getting to know my customer team, and I empathized—the supplier calls could be taxing on them. Therefore, in all my interactions with these conscientious employees, I made the utmost effort to treat them with respect and appreciation. This made all the difference in their level of trust in me.

As a result, my customers gave me the freedom to take some risks with their software strategy. They trusted that I had their best interests at heart. With a trusting partnership and open communication, we were able to transform both the functionality and reliability of the web application, thereby enabling them to have a far better relationship with the suppliers they were supporting.

Empathy Action Plan

  1. Suspend judgment. Walk in your customers’ shoes and see things from their point of view, not yours.
  2. Encourage team members to carefully observe customers, to feel what they are feeling, and to look for what’s challenging and what’s rewarding in what they do.
  3. Demonstrate that you understand what customers are trying to do. Think of innovative ways to minimize pain and maximize satisfaction for them.

Customer focus drives adaptability

Adaptability is at the core of being customer-focused. One thing that will never change, whether your customers are internal or external, businesses or end consumers, is that their needs and circumstances are in a constant state of change.

The ability to adapt to that changing landscape can be manifested in different ways. Sometimes it’s stepping away from an idea you’ve invested time and energy into because it’s no longer relevant or valuable for a customer. Sometimes it’s making progress on an initiative for your customer knowing full well the goalposts are likely to move before you finish.

If you understand what outcomes best serve your customer, you have a true north to guide you, even if your approach needs to adjust along the way.

My team was supporting a massive B2B portal implementation for a $6B business. We were 16 months into an 18-month project and our team was exhausted. My customer, the project sponsor, dropped a new requirement on us. He felt it was critical to stand up a fully functional web environment with training data before an upcoming seminar. This would allow him to effectively host a demonstration to the thousands of users—his customers—transitioning to the new portal.

It was the week before Thanksgiving and my initial reaction was to tell him that this simply could not be done. But he was right. Having a live training environment was crucial to delivering a successful launch.

I asked my team how we could accomplish the goal if we didn’t have any time constraints. In doing so, we were able to discuss an approach with less emotion and stress. As a result, we were able to come up with some shortcuts and workarounds that allowed us to spin up an environment in a couple of weeks.

I wish I could say we didn’t work through the Thanksgiving break to make it happen, but one of the aspects of adaptability is going the extra mile for the customer. We also handsomely compensated and visibly recognized those who gave up their holiday to ensure the project’s success.

Adaptability Action Plan

  1. Embrace the fact that customers’ needs, contexts, and circumstances will change.
  2. Always ask if a pivot that you are making drives a better outcome for your customer.
  3. Reward adaptable behavior when you see it in your team.

The byproducts of a customer-focused culture

In spite of the term’s overuse, there’s underappreciated value in being customer-focused. To be truly customer-focused is to demonstrate curiosity, empathy, and adaptability. These underlying traits, when steeped into a team’s culture, also have widespread effects on how the team operates internally.

A team that values curiosity will explore less obvious solutions to tricky problems. Empathetic team members correlate to higher employee engagement and all the benefits that come with it. Adaptability sets an organization up for success in a dynamic competitive environment by reducing resistance to change.

I’ve seen it over and over again in organizations supporting internal business units, external customers, or project stakeholders: a team that makes a focus on customers one of its central principals—and can walk the walk—enjoys a more productive and positive working environment.