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How to Build a Customer-Centric Business Through Employee Listening

by Aware

Your people have the insights your business needs for success. Here’s how to access them. 

Why should a business be customer centric? Because customers are the bottom line. Without customers, a business cannot exist. Being customer centric means putting customer experience at the front of everything the business does. Customers are the starting point, not the end goal. 

Focusing on customer centricity builds better relationships between brands and their users. That in turn increases consumer loyalty by making customers feel seen, heard and appreciated. And if something does go wrong in the business-customer relationship, a loyal consumer is more likely to work with the business to fix the problem instead of walking away. 

Examples of top customer-centric businesses 

 It’s unsurprising that some of the top-performing businesses in the world are also the most customer centric. Many household-name brands have gone out of their way to cultivate a reputation for exceptional service. This has kept their customer base loyal while continuously attracting new business that helps the company grow. 

  • We're not competitor obsessed, we're customer obsessed. We start with what the customer needs and we work backwards.” — Jeff Bezos, Amazon  
  • “One of the things I've always found is that you've got to start with the customer experience and work backwards for the technology.” — Steve Jobs, Apple 

From Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand outperforming top competitors on blind taste tests and price, to IKEA’s investment in augmented reality (AR) to visualize how furniture will fit in their homes, top customer-centric businesses are constantly looking for new ways to anticipate consumers’ needs. 

7 characteristics of customer-centric businesses 

Whatever their industry, customer-centric businesses have certain characteristics in common: 

  1. They are easy to deal with 
  2. They are great communicators 
  3. They keep their word 
  4. They go above and beyond 
  5. The understand their customers 
  6. They incentivize creating value 
  7. They prioritize employee wellbeing  

Being customer centric means understanding who your customers are and what they want from your business. It’s about anticipating their needs before they do and providing exceptional service at every step. But the most customer-centric businesses go even further. They incentivize employees to put customers first and find new ways to ensure satisfaction. 

That’s why billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson believes that employee experience is the foundation of building a customer-centric brand. “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” 

Often, the most customer-centric businesses are also those that prioritize employee wellbeing and experience. When employees are happy, they deliver better customer service. 

How to make a business customer centric 

You can’t expect your employees to exceed the expectations of your customers if you don’t exceed your employees’ expectations of management.”— Howard Schultz, Starbucks 

Anticipating the needs of your customers means understanding them well enough to deliver the products and services they really want. That’s harder than it might seem, and the business world is full of cautionary tales of brands that got it wrong. From the failure of Google Glass to the catastrophic launch of New Coke, even the most customer-centric brands sometimes miss the mark. 

Businesses depend on their customers for continued success, but it can be hard to uncover authentic feedback over the daily noise of running a large operation. How do leaders know what voices to listen to, or which complaints have the most statistical significance? How do brands spot when their reputation is at stake and correct course before it’s too late? Their employees have the answer. 

When we decided that our mission would be ‘to bring humanity back to air travel,’ we knew we would have to build a great culture internally or great customer service would never take root externally, with the traveling public. We needed to build a culture of respect, trust and communication, a culture where we take care of each other.”— Frankie Littleford, VP of Customer Support Experience, Operations, and Recovery, JetBlue 

Operationalizing customer empathy means empowering employees to make decisions that put customers first. Your frontline employees are in daily contact with your customers, and it’s on the front lines that a brand’s reputation is made or destroyed. Demotivated employees are less likely to care about creating an exceptional customer experience. 

The secret to building a customer-centric business therefore lies in the front line. With listening to your employees and putting them first so they can put your customers first. 

What is employee listening? 

Employee listening is a strategy for understanding the feelings and experiences of your workforce. A robust employee listening program surfaces insights from across the organization. Done well, listening strategies improve employee experience by making workers feel heard, valued and supported.  

Benefits of employee listening 

Employee listening strategies are critical for building trust between executives and frontline workers. Siloed businesses with poor communication overlook the valuable knowledge held by different departments. For major enterprises, frontline workers are among the lowest in the employee hierarchy, but they are the dominant face of the business that customers see and interact with every day. 

Listening strategies increase trust between the business and those critical workers. Prioritizing the experiences of frontline employees can give executives a better understanding of how the company runs and where things are going wrong. Employee listening doesn’t just surface procedural or organizational conflicts. It can also highlight operational failures such as equipment outages or supplier delays. 

5 steps to creating an effective employee listening strategy 

Step 1: Put the tools in place to gather feedback 

A successful employee listening strategy requires more than annual surveys. Each sampling is just a single moment in time and can be easily affected by both external and internal changes. To avoid making decisions based on stale data, it’s important to collect as much information as possible at every stage of the employee cycle. 

Augmenting annual surveys with pulse questionnaires is a good way to drill into areas of concern within the business. Shorter questionnaires also help to flesh out feedback by creating more data points for reference. 

Group roundtables, town halls, and an open line of communication for suggestions, feedback and complaints are also great ways to hear directly from employees. Remember to create a safe environment for hearing negative feedback as well as positive. 

Other ideas for building a comprehensive employee listening strategy include onboarding and exit interviews, regular 1:1 meetings between individual employees and their managers, and post-survey focus groups where employees can expand on their top concerns. 

Step 2: Make listening a priority, not an afterthought 

Employees know when they’re not being taken seriously. Your employee listening strategy must come first. Feedback from the front line should inform decisions at the highest levels, not bend to them. 

Consider how your employees prefer to communicate, and how to access the voices of those who don’t volunteer to participate in traditional listening strategies. Don’t simply poll workers for their reactions to new products or policies. Proactively ask them if they see the value in the plan and what they would most like to see from new initiatives. 

Step 3: Act on what you hear 

Listening without acting is pointless. If employees realize their feedback is routinely ignored, they’ll stop offering it. Businesses cannot say they want employees to feel valued if they don’t intend to value their input. It isn’t possible to deliver everything that employees want, at any level of the business, but leadership should fairly evaluate what is possible to introduce or change. 

Step 4: Give feedback and keep employees informed 

Even when acting on feedback isn’t possible, employees should still know that they were heard and their opinions considered. Explaining the broader business goals helps workers to feel informed and like their voices matter. Acknowledging frustrations demonstrates that you’re listening and that you care. 

It’s also helpful to set expectations around timelines for responses to feedback. What might seem like a simple ask on the front line can involve many moving parts that take time to put together.  

Step 5: Get continuous employee insights from Aware 

The most successful employee listening strategies come from accessing the largest number of authentic datapoints possible. Only by understanding the day-to-day fluctuations in sentiment can business leaders prevent a shift in mood from becoming a significant problem. Only by uncovering authentic feedback can executives make informed decisions for the good of the organization. And only when employers listen at scale can they develop a true picture of organizational health. 

Aware helps major enterprises uncover continuous insights from employee voices at scale. Aware’s Collaboration Intelligence Platform deploys industry-leading Natural Language Processing (NLP) to continuously evaluate shifts in sentiment. Reveal how employees react to business town halls and top-down messaging in near real-time. Uncover systemic failures in equipment and workflows that are creating inefficiencies and impacting customer satisfaction. Hear the authentic voice of the employee and the customer and create a better company for both. 


Watch the free webinar to learn how to listen empathetically to employees and build a more customer-centric business.

Topics:Employee ExperienceOperational Intelligence