5 Unconventional Customer-Centricity Lessons from Top CEOs

I suppose it’s natural to believe that the most successful companies are the ones that release the most innovative products

6 min. read

I suppose it’s natural to believe that the most successful companies are the ones that release the most innovative products — the things that are so cool and so new that everyone will rush out to buy them. In reality, that’s not always the case. Some of the companies featured in the spotlights below worked their way to the top by selling products that are decidedly not new: Shoes, coffee…

So what’s the secret, then? Often, it’s how a company corrals and directs its resources to focus on the customer. Those that can do so in creative ways are more likely to succeed. To help you break out of the usual ways of thinking about customer service and customer centricity, we’ve put together these unconventional lessons from some of the country’s top CEOs.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh: Money Spent on Customer Service Is Money Spent on Marketing

Most of us probably don’t equate marketing spend with things like free shipping, hyper-flexible return policies and top-notch customer service reps. Then again, most of us aren’t Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, the man behind the favorite online shoe retailer. “Our business is based on repeat customers and word of mouth,” he says. “There’s a lot of value in building up our brand name and what it stands for. We view the money that we spend on customer service as marketing money that improves our brand.”

The implicit idea here is that a strong recommendation from a friend is more powerful than the best ad — that instead of actively seeking new customers, you should make sure your current customers have such a good experience with your brand or product that they can’t help but sing its praises. Easier said than done, of course, but not impossible. Ask your customers what they want. Ask them how you could do better. Find out what a world-class buying experience looks like to them — and then execute.

ServiceNow CEO John Donahoe: Invert the Pyramid to Put Customer-Facing Roles on Top

John Donahoe spent seven years as CEO of eBay before taking the same position at ServiceNow, a cloud computing company that recently earned the #1 spot on Forbes’ list of the world’s most innovative companies. But even though he’s the head of the company, he doesn’t embrace such stature:

“I’ve always been trained with the inverted pyramid, where the customer is on top. They’re why we’re here. They are the people who give us a sense of purpose of why we’re here.

“And inside our organization, the people I talk about on top of our org chart are the people who deal with customers every day ­– they’re our customer teammates, our sales team, and our support teams. And everybody inside the company exists to help them serve the customers better.”

The idea that “the customer is #1” isn’t new, of course, but Donahoe’s focus on the teams who serve customers directly offers a practical lesson for members of those teams that don’t. It’s quite common, after all, for employees who never interact with customers or clients to feel disconnected from the company’s ultimate purpose. But a pass-first point guard is just as valuable as a team’s go-to scorer. Donahoe’s idea of the inverted pyramid helps every employee see how they can contribute to a company win.

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz: Investing in Employees Is the Best Way to Exceed Customer Expectations

Currently in the news for chatter about a potential 2020 presidential run, Howard Schultz was once the CEO of a little coffee company called Starbucks (maybe you’ve heard of it?). The largest player in Seattle’s world-famous caffeine scene, the company is known for treating its employees well, even going so far as to cover college tuition for baristas.

According to Schultz, this is no accident: “We built the Starbucks brand first with our people, not with consumers. Because we believed the best way to meet and exceed the expectations of our customers was to hire and train great people, we invested in employees.”

What’s interesting to note here is an absence: The mention of a great product. Schultz clearly recognized that people can get coffee anywhere (though, as a former Seattleite myself, I’ll argue that not all cups are created equal). What brings people back to your particular brand, then, is extraordinary customer service. And you can’t provide extraordinary customer service unless you hire great people and then offer them the right training and support.

Sometimes the question isn’t whether your product is truly the best. Sometime the question is: Will people care? If the answer is no, then you absolutely must beat your competitors at providing a great experience.

Intuit CEO Brad Smith: Observing Customers Where They Live and Work Isn’t Going Too Far

In the marketing world, we like to develop personas — fictional, generalized representations of your company’s ideal customers. These personas are meant to cover some basic demographic information, as well as key challenges and the ways your company can help. Usually, marketers develop personas through tools like online research and customer surveys — good strategies, if somewhat inexact. But what if you could skip the self reporting and guesswork all together and actually observe your customers directly?

According to the company’s CEO Brad Smith, that’s what financial software mainstay Intuit does: “Customers are at the heart of everything we do. We conduct nearly 10,000 hours of follow me homes a year where we observe customers where they live, work and do business – from home offices and coffee shops to rural farms in India.”

Presumably (hopefully!) these “follow me homes” are conducted with customers’ permission, but that’s the beauty of it: You just have to ask. Think of what you might learn by seeing how your buyers spend their days. The usefulness of particular findings will depend on your product or service, but the potential for valuable discoveries is close to limitless. Take Intuit, for instance: They can see what devices people use and when, not to mention where they’re spending their money.

What kinds of things would you focus on if you had the chance to observe your customers? Take five minutes to jot down some ideas — and then start brainstorming tactful ways to ask to become a fly on the wall.

Alphabet CEO Larry Page: Create Something that People Use Twice a Day — Like the Toothbrush

Co-founder of Google, Larry Page now serves as CEO of Alphabet Inc., the tech giant’s parent company. And despite overseeing teams responsible for some of the world’s most revolutionary technologies, his thoughts on serving end users are remarkably (perhaps quaintly) simple:

“We want to build technology that everybody loves using, and that affects everyone. We want to create beautiful, intuitive services and technologies that are so incredibly useful that people use them twice a day. Like they use a toothbrush. There aren’t that many things people use twice a day.”

The toothbrush! A technology dating back to humanity’s earliest civilization. But he’s right: Sometimes simple is best. Google’s search engine is a great example: Despite its behind-the-scenes complexity, users are presented with an experience so basic that anybody could figure it out. Type in a few words and click “search.” (That might just be part of the reason the company has been so successful.)

No matter the product or service your company sells, ask yourself how you could make some changes that would encourage customers to use it twice a day.

Do you have any unconventional customer-centricity lessons to share? CEOs of billion-dollar companies get a lot of press, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones with good ideas. Let us know what you’ve got!