It’s no longer enough to have a great product at a great price. Eight out of 10 customers say the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services. And smart businesses are taking note; Google searches for the phrase “customer experience” have nearly tripled in the last decade (note Google Trends chart below).

As the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution — such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things — are enabling businesses to offer better customer experiences, customer expectations have increased across the board. Now, businesses must provide exceptional customer experience if they want to stay competitive. Providing amazing service before and after a transaction means offering greater personalization and more highly valued, connected experiences across channels.

In short, they need to become customer-centric. Being customer-centric means putting the customer at the heart of everything you do as a business, from marketing to sales to customer service touchpoints across every channel. At Salesforce, we help businesses of all sizes adopt a customer-centric approach (and you can learn more about Salesforce Customer 360 here).

While the definition will vary between industries and individual companies, customer-centric businesses all have one thing in common — they obsess over the customer experience.


Why is it important to be customer-centric?

Customer expectations are evolving at a rapid pace. Research from Salesforce’s “State of the Connected Customer” report shows that today’s consumers and business buyers are more informed and less loyal than their predecessors. They’re looking for differentiated experiences that engender trust, and they will shop around to find them.

Simply providing service with a smile isn’t enough. A significant majority (84%) of customers say being treated like a person, rather than a number, is very important to winning their business. And with 76% of consumers and business buyers saying it’s easier than ever to take their business elsewhere, the pressure is on for organizations to get customer experience right.

The good news? The same study found that 74% of business-to-business customers and 63% of consumers will pay more for a great experience. This means that businesses have an opportunity to increase revenue by delighting their customers in a way nobody else can.


What does it mean to be customer-centric?

Putting the customer first is not a new idea. However, the same technologies that are changing customer behavior — including mobile devices, social media, the cloud, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence (AI) — are enabling businesses to personalize interactions with customers in a whole new way.

“Personal doesn’t just mean upleveling a generic experience with a person’s name,” points out Mathew Sweezey, Salesforce’s Marketing Insights Principal. “Instead, it’s about dynamically creating a personal experience at each and every moment — from the first search that helps customers ideate their needs to their final purchase, and every moment of the journey in between.”

For a customer that has established a relationship with a brand, this might mean receiving personalized recommendations based on their purchasing history as they scroll through a company’s website on the way home from work, then receiving a follow-up email the next day offering a discount.

Salesforce Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning Peter Schwartz likens the process to a tailor modifying a garment’s design to fit each customer individually. In the pre-industrial world, he points out, a tailor came to know each customer — their build, the way they wanted to look, and the fabric they preferred. Mass production and the growth of mainstream retailing changed that.

“Today, companies are once again shaping their selling experience to fit each customer individually,” Schwartz explains. “That means constantly modifying the standard product or service, like the tailors of a bygone era, but now companies add that type of craftsmanship at scale.”

A hotel group, for example, will leverage information guests give them to personalize their hotel stay at one of their properties and anticipate their needs in advance, whether it’s a preference for a particular type of pillow or information about local yoga classes. An online retailer might show customers similar products that other browsers have viewed, as well as provide direct comparisons to those products. A fashion rental company will correlate data gleaned from subscribers’ use of the service with information about their inventory to help users pick their next rental outfit faster and with a greater likelihood that it will be a perfect fit.

What does a customer-centric organization look like?

Apple Co-Founder Steve Jobs knew the importance of customer-centricity when he said “you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards for the technology ... Not start with ‘Let’s sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have.’”

It’s a lesson that successful customer-centric companies have been implementing ever since.

The potential for businesses to rethink their business model is immense. Rob Garf, Salesforce Vice President of Strategy and Insights, identifies retailing as an industry which has only just started to explore what is possible.

“We’ve been talking about the importance of ‘customer centricity’ for some time but, until now, retailers have lacked both the technology and the mandate to connect marketing, sales, service, and commerce systems to enable a 360-degree view of the customer. Now that relevant and personalized engagement has emerged as a key differentiator, retailers will finally make the investments to deliver on the promise of putting the customer in the center of everything they do.”

Catharine Findiesen Hays, Co-Author of “Beyond Advertising: Creating Value Through All Customer Touchpoints,” singles out Amazon as a customer-centric organization that is emblematic of the move toward, and demand for, intuitive, wrap-around customer experiences, made possible by agreeing to give enabling information.

“By opting in with a subscription to Amazon Prime, members exchange their search, purchase, and repurchase behavior in return for customized recommendations and choices — a mutually beneficial digital service that’s also intuitive and frictionless,” she says. As data is fed into the system, Amazon learns more about an individual’s needs and can respond in real time. Thanks to experiences like this, customers subconsciously expect a similar level of personalization when they interact with other brands.

Glen Hartman, Senior Managing Director of Accenture Interactive, North America believes the key to becoming a customer-centric organization is starting with empathy. Otherwise, he cautions, it’s easy to risk missing the point and end up alienating customers.

Hartman cites Nike as an example of a customer-centric business that successfully delivers a more empathetic experience to win over customers. 

“The point at which they started to really sell more shoes was when they turned their brand into a service that could help you track your running, compete with your friends, and just feel healthier,” he says. “For Nike, it isn’t just about selling shoes anymore; it’s about delivering on a brand promise in a way that’s more meaningful.”

At Salesforce, we often use this image of our offerings to represent customer-centricity. It’s a visual reminder to put customers at the center of everything we do.


Why do customer-centric businesses need a single view of their customer?

To be truly customer-centric, personalization alone isn’t enough. Providing customers with a connected experience across your entire organization is vital.

Salesforce’s “Trends in Integrated Customer Experiences” report found that 70% of customers say connected experiences, such as seamless handoffs between departments and contextualized engagement based on earlier interactions, are very important to winning their business. Almost two-thirds (63%) expect companies to recognize them wherever they engage, while around 70% say salespeople’s knowledge of marketing campaigns they’ve seen is very important to them, as are service interactions they’ve had in the past. Almost half (49%) have no patience for disconnected experiences.

Put simply, “you must win at every interaction the customer has with your organization, whether that be a marketing campaign, a call to a contact center, an invoice, or a delivery reliant on the supply chain,” wrote Gartner Research Director Olive Huang. “Every department must play its part in a coordinated fashion.” (source: “Smarter With Gartner, 'Is Your Organization Customer Centric?',” Laurence Goasduff, April 30, 2018).

With siloed data a major roadblock to connectivity within organizations, businesses must first look at how they can unlock data held in multiple, disconnected systems.

They also need to ensure that everyone within the organization has a single view of their customer and the role of customer experience. By encouraging employees to think about customer experience in terms of what’s good for the customer (“Did we help them solve their problem?”) instead of what’s good for the business (“Did we make the sale?”), organizations take the first steps toward building a truly customer-centric culture.

“Unfortunately,” says Tiffani Bova, Salesforce’s Global Customer Growth and Innovation Evangelist, “... employees often operate with a myopic, territorial view of customer experience.”

“When people say ‘customer experience should be owned by marketing,’ they don’t acknowledge that when a customer reaches out to talk to a brand, it’s usually to sales,” she says. “And then if there’s a problem, they reach out to service — not marketing.” It matters less who owns customer experience and more who implements it, and everyone in an organization — from the executive level down — should be implementing it.

“The disconnection between teams is the result of disconnected metrics and manifests in disconnected customer experiences,” Bova adds.

She suggests measuring customer experience in relation to revenue and other organization-wide metrics to promote alignment. Leaders must also demonstrate a commitment to the longer-term outcomes of customer experience, even if traditional performance indicators, such as sales, drop in the short term.


Trust is at the heart of customer-centric business models

Since customer experience runs on data, building trust with customers is vital. Unfortunately, high-profile data breaches have been in the headlines more and more often, highlighting the poor cybersecurity procedures of many organizations. Similarly, data misuse scandals affecting tens of millions of people have left many people wondering how their personal information is really being used.

Research from Salesforce’s “Trends in Customer Trust” report found 59% of customers believe their personal information is vulnerable to a security breach, while 54% of customers don’t believe companies have their best interests at heart. 

Although many people are comfortable providing personal information in return for better experiences, the onus is on businesses to be transparent about how personal information is gathered, stored, and used, and to have strong privacy policies in place. If businesses use that information to push unrelated or irrelevant products, they’ll lose trust.

The benefits for companies that earn customers’ trust are considerable. Not only do customers spend more with brands they trust, but they are more likely to recommend them. Get it wrong, however, and the stakes are also higher — social media and review websites amplify unhappy customers’ grievances to a broader audience than in the past. In fact, 93% of customers say trusting a company makes them more likely to recommend that company.


Looking ahead to a customer-centric future

Organizations must become more customer-centric if they want to survive in this Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“Just like consumers expect TV and movie recommendations from their streaming service of choice to be relevant and timely, the tailored experience is becoming a necessity for all customers regardless of the company they are engaging with. Companies that don’t get on board with this may not be around much longer,” said Patrick Stokes, senior vice president of product management, Salesforce Customer 360.

By placing the customer at the heart of every interaction with them, customer-centric businesses can create a dynamic, seamless, and uniquely personalized experience for customers that helps them achieve their desired outcome, and ultimately drives sales.

“In the future,” says Tiffani Bova, “... customer-driven organizations will completely reset value and meaningful experience with customers.”

Peter Schwartz anticipates businesses will be able to use AI to turn a “comprehensive trove of data into insights that can anticipate customers’ needs and act as their digital assistant.”

He uses the example of a frequent business traveler who walks into a hotel room to be greeted by her favorite music playing, photos of her family in digital frames, and an email in her inbox asking if she wants the Caesar salad, without croutons, she ordered from room service last time. The temperature and lighting are set to her preferred levels, and when she turns on the television, it suggests a movie she’s yet to see, starring her favorite actress. A rental car of the model she’s considering buying is available at the hotel.

“This isn’t marketing to a category of consumers,” Schwartz says. “It’s applying AI and all the customer data to cater to the needs of a single individual, which is much more powerful.”

Ultimately, predicts Stokes, “we’ll see more and more forward-looking brands deploy the right technologies, implement the right processes, and hire the right people to seamlessly connect all of their customer data, bringing about a fundamental shift for companies as they reorient from being product-centric to truly customer-centric.”


See how you can adopt a customer-centric strategy with the Salesforce Customer Success Platform.