How to Build Customer-First Operations


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Zappos readily promotes the idea that it isn’t a company – it’s a mission. The Zappos mission to deliver happiness and an unparalleled customer experience has been successful: The company founded by Tony Hsieh in 1999 chalked up more than $1 billion in sales in 2008, one year before it was acquired by industry giant Amazon.[1]

The company’s customer-first approach is more than mere lip service. Zappos truly appeals to and pleases the masses – it’s a brand that is agile, digital and savvy when it comes to social media – but that is not the sole factor in its success. Behind the heartwarming stories of Zappos customer service representatives spending hours on the phone with a customer in search of the perfect shoe is a precisely efficient operational backend.

In the era of Zappos (and Amazon, Disney and many other customer-first organizations), customer-facing employees tend to take the spotlight. However, those employees – and ultimately the organization itself – would fall on their faces without an equally customer-obsessed operational backbone.

Being customer-first is no longer an add-on: It’s an imperative for survival in a new world order in which the consumer dictates the selling habits of the retailer, rather than the retailer driving consumer buying habits. Service providers and B2B organizations aren’t immune, either. As retail experiences are transformed by changing consumer demands, those new expectations and standards of excellence will trickle down into every segment of the marketplace.

A customer-first organization requires a nimble operational construct made up of employees who are willing and empowered to do whatever is necessary to achieve client satisfaction. Here are a few tips on how to create a customer-first atmosphere at all levels of your organization:

Align employees around a shared, customer-centric vision.

If customer obsession isn’t already one of your company values, make it one. Zappos’ core values, most of which are focused on surprising and delighting the customer at a higher standard than anyone else, are incorporated into every move it makes, from hiring and onboarding to strategic decision-making.

The brands that are thriving today are creating experiences that consumers can feel, touch and see, anything from temporary graphics and in-store fixtures to flagship stores and influencer kits. They often have very diverse teams; on any given marketing project, they may have a creative veteran sitting at a studio 3000 miles from the manufacturing plant along with an hourly employee who works on the print press floor. Each contributes vitally to delivering a holistic, authentic and valuable customer experience.

Including all levels of employees in decision-making processes empowers them to understand how putting the customer first translates into daily operations and strategy alike. It can be as simple as sharing campaign-level customer feedback – both positive and constructive – with hourly press operators. Sharing context and end-result information with everyone who had hands on a project ensures that each employee has a stake in the end-consumer experience, which gives them the opportunity to learn, grow and better serve the customer.

Utilize the right metrics for the right reasons.

Creating a customer-first organization requires leaders to put some purpose to the processes, and to ensure that what you measure first starts with a why.

For example, many organizations measure overtime costs because reduced costs allow them to provide the customer with more competitive pricing. Helping hourly employees understand the why behind overtime management facilitates this. Organizations that are doing this well regularly present hourly employees with data-based reasoning that clearly demonstrates how controlling overtime costs enables them to keep prices down and, ultimately, better serve the customer. Powered by purpose, these employees more effectively manage overtime costs because they understand their personal role in offering customers better value and in driving efficiency for all parties involved.

Get out of the commodity market.

You aren’t selling a product. No matter what you make, your value proposition lies in the experience you provide. The companies that continue to think of themselves as a commodity, one that can win on price alone, will flail and flounder in today’s increasingly consumer-driven market. Offering a fair price is table stakes – organizations must now couple price with authentic experiences and strong relationships to win.

To sustain this model effectively, organizations must create operational infrastructures that are more nimble, intuitive and human. At Zappos, that means empowering customer service employees to make executive decisions in the customer’s best interest. Instead of forcing them to jump through bureaucratic hoops, Zappos employees are encouraged to trust their “personal emotional connections,” or PECs, and do whatever is necessary to make the customer happy.

Keeping the customer happy is just as important for service-oriented organizations as it is for consumer-facing ones. Today, more and more organizations are realizing that successful relationships are rooted in being trusted stewards of their clients’ budgets. By helping them optimize spend and focus it in the right places, they are providing value far beyond that provided by companies that compete solely on the basis of low costs.

It’s not obvious, and that’s by design, but the greatest customer-first companies enable superior experiences through process-driven capabilities. Manufacturing and distribution centers are enablers of consumer experiences, and they must be empowered and acknowledged as such. As retail cycles continue to accelerate and consumer preferences disrupt the market in all industries, your operational backbone will make or break your ability to respond quickly, reliably and authentically to customer demands in the moment.




1. “Amazon to Buy Zappos,” Forbes, July 22, 2009

Kevin Peters
Kevin Peters brings more than 20 years of experience in building customer-first printing and packaging operations to his current role as vice president of manufacturing at IDL Worldwide, which partners with world-class brands to create elevated experiences at retail and beyond


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