Customer-Centric Culture Leads to Greater Employee Retention [Research]

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Brooke Landon
Brooke Landon



For years, "customer centricity" has been a guiding principle for many support and service teams who know that building a customer centric culture is about much more than just saying "the customer is always right."


Yet these same teams also often struggle to make the benefits of true customer centricity understood and valued company-wide. Many companies operate under the false assumption that outside of service organizations, the interests of customers and employees are inherently at odds. In fact, there are many ways that you can benefit both.

New research from SurveyMonkey shows that companies with a customer-centric culture are significantly more likely to have employees who are more engaged and more committed to sticking with their job.

Causation is hard to prove, and our data doesn't show that customer centricity definitely leads to more engaged employees. But it does show that a customer-centric culture is intrinsically connected to job meaningfulness and loyalty.

For service teams dealing with exhausting attrition rates and challenges with leadership support, building a culture of customer centricity might be a step in the right direction.

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We break customer centricity into three key areas:

  • Listening to customers
  • Understanding customer needs
  • Advocating and acting on customer needs

Every step is critical, each needs to be supported at both the individual and organizational levels. The work of every employee at a company impacts customers eventually, but the degrees of separation between can create disassociation. Companies with a customer-centric culture bridge that gap so that each person can listen to customers, understand them, and advocate for them -- regardless of their role.

A customer-centric culture amplifies the customer voice through shared channels and company experiences, so that everyone within an organization understands what customers are struggling with, what they love about the product, and how the work that company does ultimately impacts customers' lives.

It might sound abstract in concept, but customer culture is actually very measurable. (This free culture of customer centricity survey template can get you started.) If you can track it against improved employee satisfaction, attrition, and even customer experience, you have an incredibly compelling case for prioritizing customer centricity as an HR metric. SurveyMonkey's research uncovered four major areas that are positively associated with employee engagement, based on the data.

The 4 Pillars of a Strong Customer Culture

1. Each person feels empathy for your customers.

Customer empathy is a relatively recent, but deeply important concept. The Harvard Business Review indexed the 100 most empathetic companies, and reported that the top 10 "increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10, and generated 50% more earnings." That profit difference is almost certainly due to customer loyalty, but it's possible that having a dedicated base of engaged employees helped too.

SurveyMonkey research found that 76% of people who reported having high levels of customer empathy found meaning in their work. Among those with low customer empathy, that number was only 49%.

Employees who feel like they can connect to their customers' needs on a personal level seem to be more readily fulfilled. It makes sense: if customers are nothing but faceless complaints, there's nothing very rewarding about solving their problems. But being able to understand where your customers are coming from makes the necessity of your work much more evident.

2. Employees feel like your organization cares about customer pain points.

Individual empathy is great, but research found that having a sense of customer centricity as a community is just as important.

People who say customer satisfaction is a key priority for their company are almost twice as likely to say they plan to work there in two years than others (83% versus 56%).

In customer service, it isn't often that people forget the fact that customer satisfaction is a priority -- but believing that it is a priority for the rest of the company too could help boost engagement rates. Emphasizing your company's focus on happy customers tells employees that their work matters, and how it is part of taking the right steps to grow as a business, keeps the entire workforce rallied around common goals.

It's also possible that making "customer satisfaction" a more explicit company value helps elevate the work of your service team, and helps the whole organization understand the absolutely critical role that they play. Individual acknowledgment can play a major role in employee retention. Now extend that logic to an entire field (customer service).

3. Your people understand how their work affects customers.

In an interview with Forbes, Intuit CEO Brad Smith said, "Clear a path from work to customer ... The best reward for employees is seeing the profound impact of their work on the lives of our more than 50 million customers." He's a wise man.

Seventy-six percent of workers who think their work has a large impact on customers find their jobs meaningful. Among those who feel their work has little impact, only 49% say the same.

Do your service employees get to see the results of their work play out? Do they have insight into the ways that their day-to-day tasks translate into a better world for customers?

It may seem like the path from work to customer is obvious, but knowing something in the back of one's mind isn't the same as experiencing it day-to-day. A hospital accountant filling out excel sheets doesn't necessarily get to see the patients benefiting from the medical supplies she's budgeting for. If she did, she might be more emotionally invested in her job. The same applies to answering tickets -- zooming out from what could become menial tasks to remind workers of their ultimate impact may give those tasks more purpose.

4. Your organization keeps customers top-of-mind.

The research found that employees who think about customers on at least a weekly basis are the ones who find the most meaning in their work.

Seventy-two percent of employees who think about customers on a weekly basis find their jobs meaningful, versus 58% of those who don't.

Consistency is important. Just like daily gratitude diaries improve psychological wellness, weekly reminders of who your customers are and why they matter could influence employee attitudes for the better.

How a Customer Centric Culture Prevents Customer Churn

Good customer service has become a major differentiator for companies across industries, but the cost of keeping up with the competition has created infamously high burnout rates. HubSpot's and McKinsey's research highlights the expansiveness of the problem:

"Although 58% of growing companies we surveyed prioritized the retention of customer support reps, we also learned that only 42% of customers support reps who responded planned to continue a career in customer success -- and just 19% of respondents with less than one year of experience planned to stay in customer success."

No amount of cultural change can compensate for insufficient pay or benefits. Much of the turnover in customer service is attributable to unfavorable work hours and conditions that are written into their contracts, and prioritizing customer centricity won't help with that. But for shaping the overall attitude of the workforce and instilling a sense of purpose and loyalty, an optimistic culture of customer centricity could work wonders.

Management experts say that meaningful work and a culture of purpose is more effective for employee retention than offering elaborate perks. Thoughtful, consistent expression of customer-centric values could help build that sense of meaning.

Many service organizations consider keeping customer service agents in their jobs the most pressing barrier to success. Reducing attrition can make a major impact on business operations and the success of service teams as a whole. Changes that support a more positive customer culture are accessible and inexpensive relative to the cost of losing good employees.

How to Build a Customer-Centric Culture

This article won't be able to do justice to the multitude of ways that you can build a customer-centric culture, or the depth of explanation that these programs require, but here are a few high-level concepts for ways you might build a stronger culture of customer centricity at your organization.

As you experiment, use the culture of customer centricity survey to test the impact of different strategies on your company culture.

1. Try customer interaction reports to bring customer service to the forefront, and give all employees more holistic insight into customer lives.

Customer interaction reports (or CIRs) are quick forms that employees from every department are encouraged to fill out after an engagement with a customer, which are shared with the rest of the company. They don't need to be completed after every interaction -- just the ones that strike the employee as notable.

SurveyMonkey's integration withZapier can help you do this. Zapier is a "master key" that automatically triggers actions after surveys get filled out. In this case, Zapier can connect customer interaction reports with other software, like company wikis or messaging channels, so the results are broadcast as soon as they're in.

At SurveyMonkey, employees fill out a CIR survey and then Zapier automatically sends excerpts to company Slack channel (a business messaging app). People across the company can read what the customer said and how the situation moved forward (and have conversations about it with other employees). In addition to giving employees a structure that makes it easier to connect with customers, the shared results also help the company as a whole make better strategic decisions, with customer needs in mind (which hopefully makes service people's jobs easier.)

These reports aim to help employees feel connected to both to the end customer and to other employees. The company is unified by the good work that everyone is doing, and by putting themselves into their customers' various shoes. Seeing the diversity of pain points and successes that customers experience encourages employees to work together with those various goals and needs in mind.

2. Circulate social media customer "love notes" regularly to keep morale up.

You want all of your employees to know how much their colleagues in making customers happy -- and that it pays off. Elevating the work of exceptional service employees is a great way to show them the type of appreciation that keeps them engaged.

It's equally applicable to non-service workers If someone worked on a product for months, they'll want to know that it's appreciated. If a salesperson worked hard to seal a deal, he or she will want to know that the customer is still cared for. Sharing positive feedback that your team gets on social media, through customer reviews, or in emails gives the whole organization a sense of purpose, and lets them know that their work is appreciated.

Customer service representatives who often times don't get to revel in the glow of positive customer experiences, or even know that they've gotten positive feedback. Make it something to celebrate.

3. Make customer centricity an explicit company value.

Almost every company has a written set of values, or "pillars" that are used for making decisions. Making customer centricity a company value might feel like a primarily symbolic move, but it has power.

Creating amazing customer experiences is hard and requires work by people and functions across the organization. Setting explicit goals around the customer at the highest possible level aligns cross-functional teams around a common goal. Doing this may help point decision-makers toward customer-friendly solutions. It may also simply reassure service employees that their work is highly prized.

4. To engage other employees, consider making customer service a company-wide experience.

One of the best ways to bring customers to life for your employees outside of customer service is to have a one-on-one interaction with them. That's not necessarily accessible in the average employee's day-to-day, but creating those opportunities could help employees connect to customers more and build respect for how service people work.

Zapier, a workflow automation company, has a program called "All Hands Support," which requires every single employee to spend a small part of their day working with customers and answering their questions.

It might only be a few hours, or a few days, but Zapier employees end up with a much deeper understanding of what their customers care about, and what their company's products and services mean for those customers -- resulting in better customer-first thinking. The concept has gotten popular: Stripe, Slack, New Relic, Wistia, and SurveyMonkey have similar programs.

It's important to repeat that our research didn't prove that a culture of customer centricity leads to better employee engagement. It is possible that the two are only correlated (meaning that the types of companies that have customer centric cultures also happen to be the ones that have higher engagement rates.)

That said, the correlation is very strong. Common sense says that giving employees a sense of the breadth of their work and building enthusiasm for customers is a generally good practice, which will result in a stronger business.

If you're lobbying for support internally, We recommend presenting the results of this study to leadership, and continuing to run the customer centricity survey regularly after customer advocacy pushes to understand whether there was a positive impact.

If a more comprehensive customer culture is connected to happier employees, creating one should be a top priority for service companies and departments. Making customers more human for your workers makes the relationship between them closer -- which is a win for everyone.

To learn more, read about how to build a customer success program.

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