Forget “customer first” – and do this instead

A person in front of a laptop computer. The screen of the laptop shows text: YES NO
Illustration Jutta Kivilompolo
July 1, 2021

Read time 4 min

“Customer first!” is a mantra we’ve all come to know. It’s a good starting point, but often a bit hollow as a principle. It tends to lead to endless pretty slides on customer insights, but little action on actually making the customer feel they are a priority.


Hannamari Lakkala is a strategy and business design consultant skilled in explaining how digitalization can turn into a growth engine for business, how to build systematic ways to nurture innovation, and how to commercialize ideas big and small.

To get to “customer first”, we hear our clients voicing the need to better understand who their customers are. This usually leads to segments, and from segments to personas. We draw a depiction of the “average” customer, with demographics, wants, and needs. And then, we put this Average Customer first.

The thing is, though, that even if this average person were to exist, they would rarely act like their average self. 

As my colleague Karri wrote in his blog, human behavior is situational, not tied to a single persona. Furthermore, we constantly overestimate our capability to act in the role of other people. So even when designing for an actual person, we tend to simplify and even overinterpret  their needs.

To put the customer first is to put the customer’s situation first.

The  better question to ask: What does the customer need right now? To every interaction, a customer brings a problem, a need, an intent, or a question, along with a corresponding desired outcome and expectations for how quickly or easily that outcome should be realized. All this happens whether the customer is aware of it or not.

Putting the customer first is then actually less about understanding the depths of the person, and more about listening in on their current situation. It’s about putting the customer’s needs in this instant, first.

Does this sound too fuzzy? Too human-centric or idealistic? Too hard to measure to actually make it your guiding star?

It’s really not.

When contextual design meets data science

Building customer-centric interactions and services is about combining two capabilities:

1️⃣ Contextual design: using human-centric design methods to research and understand the customers’ behaviour in different situations, and basing design on these behavioural findings, rather than demographic qualities.

2️⃣ Data science: Feeding the design process with actual customer behaviour data, and building a feedback loop from customer interactions back to the design process. Data science can also be used to personalise services and provide customers with alternative service modes, views or recommendations based on their behaviour.

Contextual design and data science complement each other. For example, in the pioneering new study conducted by Alice Labs in partnership with Reaktor, we learned that sometimes AI has a hard time differentiating between situational needs. In these cases, UI design can give the user an option to manually help out the AI, and point out that this time is special:  “Just for tonight, I want romcoms, not my usual sci-fi action”.

That’s what it tends to come down to – the endless opportunities of data and tech need human-centric design to bloom.

How to know you’re doing it right

Let’s talk about how you can turn this thinking into action and metrics. The attempt to put the customer first tends to come with a goal to increase the NPS (Net Promoter Score), or maybe it’s tied to the CLV (Customer Lifecycle Value). Both are perfectly fine KPIs, but they give little indication on how to improve the customer experience.

One approach towards more granular customer-centric metrics are Customer Performance Indicators, or CPIs. A CPI is different from a KPI for two reasons. Most importantly, it must be an outcome customers say is important to them. Also, it must be measurable in increments that customers actually value.

The NPS, for example, is not a CPI, as only companies — not customers — care about it. Time, convenience, number of options, money saved, or recognition of achievements, for example, are potential measures for CPI.

In essence, using CPIs shifts your perspective to look at performance from the customer’s point of view.

So forget digging deeper into the customer’s personality and traits.

Direct your curiosity towards your customer’s different situations, needs, and moods – and use data and design to build solutions that serve the varying behaviours of varying customers.

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