Culture Clash: Is your company sales or customer-driven?


Share on LinkedIn


True story. My computer recently got infected with malware. Of course, it only happens on the day you have back-to-back meetings and are running on super tight deadlines. The good news is I knew instantly my hard drive was hijacked and quickly got on the phone with a stellar tech support rep from a virus protection software company. The fast response and positive customer experience turned what could have been a disaster into a manageable nuisance.

The problem, however, was the sales pitch that was woven into the conversation with tech support. In the end, the malware issue was resolved in minutes, but the sales pitch took twice as long so I declined the upgrade offer.

While the company should be applauded for making the most of a live customer interaction, a rarity in today’s digital age, they delayed addressing the immediate crisis and customer need. This anecdote reflects a bigger issue facing a lot of companies today. Are they customer-driven or sales-driven?

When asked, most companies would describe their culture as customer-driven. They might even recite their company mission, which likely includes language around customer service.

A customer-driven company leads with a focus on customer satisfaction, loyalty, retention, referrals, and advocacy. Think Zappos, REI, and Nordstrom, for example. On the other hand, a sales-driven company is more driven by net new sales, commissions, and margins. Neither approach is right or wrong but customer-driven companies spend less time and money on marketing because they’re able to drive successful word-of-mouth. According to the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), offline word of mouth for fast moving consumer goods is five times more than a paid media impression. When it comes to higher consideration categories, word of mouth is 100 times more valuable.

Creating a Customer-First Culture

In a customer-centric culture, every employee is focused on building and delivering a superior customer experience. While shifting from a culture that prioritizes sales to one that is customer-centric seems like a relatively simple pivot in focus, it is not a simple change. For example, new digital marketing and technology innovations have delivered many ways for marketers and employees to understand what products to deliver to customers at what point in times in a context of their overall experience. Yet no matter how much data-driven insight exists, and how personalized and compelling the message is, you’ll undo your efforts if the experience is not one focused on the specific needs of the customer.

For many companies the biggest challenge in becoming customer-centric is the behavioral and culture change required. Businesses rise and fall on sales volume and it is very easy to make that the core focus of a culture. The problem in today’s digital world is the customer doesn’t want to be treated as your sale, and it is only a moment before that annoyed customer shares their negative experience through digital channels and creates a challenge for your brand.

No one wants to feel like they are a number and you can see in my interaction above that it was clear that my security crisis was less important to the tech support representative than getting more revenue aligned against my name. This is behavioral. The individual was incented to focus first on revenue and second on customer need (ironically if they focused on me first I likely would have bought the additional product). To change this requires a realignment of values and incentives as well as training on how to put the customer needs first.

As digital transparency and shared customer experiences are available for all the world to see, creating a customer-centric culture is quickly becoming a non-negotiable. Doing this will require reinventing the way you work. This includes reward systems based on client satisfaction and retention and allowing for roles to overlap without disrupting the flow of business or compromising the customer experience and finding ways to share stories internally about how customers are positively supported rather than just sharing new sales wins.

(image source: BMI Tech Knowledge)


  1. yes, Yes and YES!!! If you want to be a customer-focused company, focus on THE CUSTOMER!!! Take care of what they need and want and they will take care of you; it is the natural human experience of reciprocity. If you just want to sell, sell, sell, then plan that flag and own it. Don’t pretend – as the virus company did – that you care about customer service with a not so subtle sales pitch mixed in.

    For close to 19 years my company has focused on client care – taking care of what the customer needs – and we’ve been rewarded with exceptional loyalty. One of our major clients has been wit us since Y2K. Sales is expensive and money-losing; client care and therefore retention is where you make your money AND you get to fulfill your mantra of being customer-focused. Adopt this strategy and succeed. Otherwise you are disingenuous.

  2. Excellent post. The importance of a customer-focused culture cannot be overstated!

    I’ve spent the last 1.5 years writing a book on how companies can develop a customer-focused culture. One of the biggest challenges I’ve discovered is that, as you point out, executives would like to think their organization is customer-focused, but few truly are.

    The elite few that really get it are 100% committed and they align everything in their organization around customer-focus. Simple in concept, but difficult in execution.

    The book isn’t out yet, but you can download the first chapter and read how one company’s support agents are so obsessed with service that they tweeted their personal phone numbers to their customers when the phone system went down!

  3. Thanks for your comments Andrew, Jeff and Lou.
    Andrew I think this is a mandate not a dichotomy – be customer driven or customers will take their business elsewhere.
    Lou, agreed that authenticity is critical to this work.
    Jeff, congrats on your book.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here