At 6:45 on a Sunday morning in October, hundreds of New Yorkers waited in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The line wrapped around the block but was still fewer than expected, the cold rain separating the casual fans from the die-hard loyalists. They weren’t in line for concert tickets, for the latest iPhone or Nike drop, or the DMV. They were in line for groceries. But this wasn’t just any grocery store.
They were waiting for Wegman’s.
Wegman’s is a Rochester-based grocery store with a truly massive following. Self-proclaimed “Wegmaniacs” will travel and wait in line for hours to get items like chicken breasts and Italian subs. A Massachusetts high school even put on a Wegman’s-themed musical.
Wegman’s is known for its high quality and low prices, but that’s only part of the story. The real magic comes from being obsessed with customer experience. This obsession touches everything they do, from hiring to stocking to loading groceries into their customer’s cars.
It’s paid off. They’ve earned their spot as America’s favorite grocery store and were ranked second in best known brands, beaten only by Amazon. Not bad for a regional chain.
But, while it’s great to have loyal followers who write music for you, does that fanaticism lead to sustained growth? In a word: yes.
Existing customers account for one-third to one-half of revenue growth, even at startups. Loyal customers spend more with companies they’ve been with for a long time and are worth 23% more than the average customer. Increasing customer retention rates by just 5% increases profits by 25% to 95%. And that’s without factoring in referrals or reputational benefits.
For me, though, the reason to be obsessed with customers comes down to one simple question: Why would you expect your customers to care about you if you don’t care about them?
Listen to your customers.
Being customer-obsessed means constantly working to improve your customers’ experience. So, what does it mean to be customer-obsessed if you’re running a startup instead of a grocery store?
Listen to your customers. They’ll tell you.
Listening is a competitive advantage because almost no one does it. They look at the market, their competitors, trends, and who got written up in which magazine. And sure, it’s good to stay informed, but focusing on external inputs puts you in a posture of reactive decision-making. You’re doing something because someone else did it first.
Listening to your customers allows you to be proactive. You can solve problems before they’re deal-breakers and lead the market instead of just responding to it.
And by listening, I don’t mean looking at data. Data can tell you what happened. Your customers will tell you why. For most companies, a handful of meaningful conversations with the right customers will be more useful than even the most robust data set.
Put customer support at the center of your product innovation.
Does innovating around customer feedback mean we just make what they tell us to? No. A quote often attributed to Henry Ford cuts to why: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Putting customers at the center of innovation means listening to the outcomes they want, not asking them to come up with the solution (that’s your job). What is the problem they’re trying to solve? Why is it painful? What are the stakes?
Put simply: you need to get to know your customer. How do you do that?
1. Collect feedback:
Customer feedback can be qualitative through surveys (I know a good engine) or quantitative through interviews and direct customer communication at the “front lines.” Regardless of the form, focus on understanding your customer and their needs, not getting stats that will look good on marketing material.
2. Analyze results:
Look for patterns in pain points and in what your customers value most. What could you do today to improve the customer experience? This quarter? Next year? Make sure you share the results widely. At a customer-obsessed company, everyone should take a look.
3. Follow up with the customer:
In order to build relationships, companies have to close the feedback loop. People, customers or not, like to feel heard. If they don’t feel like they were listened to, they’re less likely to give feedback in the future. Feedback is a gift; think of the follow-up like a thank you note.
Customer obsession isn’t for one team: it’s a part of company culture.
At truly customer-obsessed companies, customer experience is part of everyone’s job. In their first month at Jotform, our new hires handle roughly 100 customer support requests. Directly handling requests is the best way to understand our users. As a bonus, it gives new hires a crash course in our software. After all, you can’t help someone if you don’t understand the product inside and out.
We spend critical onboarding time on this because hiring and employee experience are the driving force behind customer obsession.
In HBR’s famous Southwest Airlines case study, they concluded that Southwest’s true competitive advantage didn’t stem from the types of planes they flew or where they based their hubs. It came from their HR department. They hired people for their attitude and trained for skills. Southwest’s mission is purely service-oriented, and in order for a mission to succeed, every team member has to be on board.
Mission-focused hiring comes with benefits beyond customer satisfaction. Southwest has the lowest turnover and highest employee satisfaction rates in the industry. They believe that happy employees equal happy customers. This is true for America’s favorite grocery store, too. Wegman’s is also consistently ranked as a top company to work for.
It’s not a coincidence. A Glassdoor study found that customer happiness and employee well-being are statistically linked. Industry matters — those with more customer interaction were more impacted — but across the board, improving employee morale improved customer experiences.
It makes sense. A team that prioritizes kindness and helpfulness is going to extend those values to their customers.
Those connections are important. No one wants to feel like a ticket or a data point. Treating customer obsession as a company value rather than a business unit prioritizes relationships over transactions, which makes everyone happier. That happiness just so happens to be good for business, too.