Everyday work life is filled with profit and losses, initiatives, metrics, administration, logistics and politics. All of this – along with the operational aspects of running your retail establishment – is vital to your business.

However, the most important aspect of your business, and one that must be measured on an ongoing basis, is the opinions and perspectives of your customers.

But let’s say you didn’t start out customer-centric, and you want to correct or redirect the company towards a more customer-centric path. What do you do?

Your company needs to breathe ‘customer oxygen.’ The word ‘oxygen’ is important, because it reflects the idea that the customer’s perspective should infuse just about every business decision you make each day. This oxygen should flow from the CEO and beyond, as a customer-centric culture affects every division, department and function.

In my experience, the most important thing you can do is to bring the customer closer to your business and brand in an operational way.

Occasional research insights are important to guide the corporate ship like a compass, but not enough to sustain its course. Have you ever sat through a comprehensive two hour research presentation, rich with customer insight? Maybe attended a focus group or usability study? You may walk away inspired, perhaps with a few customer-centric action items. But in a week you’re back to the day-to-day grind, focusing on internal measures, making decisions in functional blocks and operating without the all-important customer oxygen that would make those decisions easier and more effective.

To put the customer’s voice and word of mouth on a conscious, operational level inside a retail business, the strategy needs a frequency and reach that we know works with external marketing activity. You can develop programmes where your customers’ word of mouth is ever-present, visible and participatory for all of your colleagues (not just you). Specifically, this is a programme – not a project, not a campaign, not a promotion. It’s not one presentation, not one focus group, or any short-lived effort that is forgotten when everyone goes back to their day job.

For a corporate system to digest the perspective of the customer, a programme needs to integrate into processes, reporting, performance plans and other methods of day-to-day work and accountability. It becomes a programme that people in the company can continuously improve, which is something employees are good at doing. Your managers, colleagues and employees can feed on daily customer-focused tactics and metrics that can be part of their job and performance; weaving it into the overall fabric of your company.

Earlier in my career, I helped develop the customer-centric strategy for Dell’s $8 billion US consumer business. I’ve also consulted with companies on word of mouth. What I’ve learned is that there’s no magic spell to get colleagues to embrace the customer perspective. What we’re talking about is culture, and it’s difficult to change. However it’s from culture that everything follows — technology, policy, brand, customer service, product development and hiring, among a whole host of other things. Both large and small decisions that affect people, processes and technology decisions are driven through culture.

Therefore, to change the culture, it is important to involve all areas of your company in brainstorming ways to get closer to the customer at all levels of the organisation. 

Customer-centricity starts from the very top of a business, so get your executives involved in the programmes and metrics that are directly involved with customer feedback and voice. Then talk to the people in your organisation who are closest to your customers: your salespeople, customer service reps or technical support staff. Better yet, talk to your customers directly. Go and see them. How do they use your products? What results are they getting – or not getting? Get your executives involved here, too.

Usability studies are important; it is emotional to empathize with your customer. Attending focus groups, reading customer comments or reviews and developing personas are all ways to briefly capture customer insights. These are generally short-term activities, with results that are quickly forgotten unless they are consistently repeated and reported on at management level. You can monitor customer blogs and social networks – or a combination of all this and more. Most importantly, you must be able to measure and report on your findings.

At Bazaarvoice, we focus on helping clients – some of the world’s largest global brands such as Dell and HP, and UK brands that include Figleaves, Timberland and Goldsmiths – capture, analyse and leverage the customer voice for marketing through customer ratings, reviews, questions and answers. 

A 2007 study by UK-based research firm NetExtract found that 71% of UK online shoppers seek out ratings and reviews, so if your online retail site allows customers to share opinions online, you are giving your customers want they want.

However, the larger benefit of reviews on your site is how it helps you accomplish the objective of bringing customer oxygen into your company and changing the culture.

Reviews are content and data that can be used, analysed and acted upon every day. Customers’ authentic opinions about products provide valuable insights into what your customers actually think. You can mine this customer data to merchandise more effectively, reduce return rates and work with vendors to improve products.

When other internal groups, such as executives, finance, customer service and other departments start to use this data, you get emails about the customer perspective from people at all levels of your organisation. Your superiors ask for analysis on the customer perspective before making big decisions. You start to plan your business and marketing around what customers think. You build new programs and processes on the foundation of the customer voice.

Now, with daily customer input right on your own site, your company is starting to breathe customer oxygen! This is when you know you’re on the path towards building a more customer-centric culture.