Most every company says they’re customer centric. Some actually believe it. But companies that are truly customer centric walk the talk. They translate high-minded words into daily deeds.

These companies serve the customer at every touchpoint. They do as legendary Southwest Airlines chief Herb Kelleher once advised: they treat profit as a byproduct of the customer experience, not the end unto itself.

This begins with a reorientation of the business from the portfolio to the persona. Portfolio-driven companies start with the question of what they have on the truck to sell. Persona-driven companies start with an entirely different question: How can we be of service?

In fact, this inclination to serve isn’t limited to just bona fide customers. These companies seek to serve all audiences—customers, prospective customers, advocates, influencers, and ordinary human beings walking the earth. It’s an old-fashioned pay-it-forward philosophy—and it works.

As I’ve said before, when you start with what’s at stake for the buyer, you earn the right to their attention. And their attention is a scarce commodity, so you really do have to work for it.

This requires empathy, which is a word you don’t hear a whole lot in business. But empathy is exactly what it takes to earn your customers’ attention, loyalty and advocacy. Empathy says we’re listening and we hear you. It says, to paraphrase P.O.T.U.S. #42, that we feel your pain.

Empathy is about vicariously understanding your audience and working hard to serve their needs.

This is not to say that every customer and every audience is precisely equal. In an economic sense, that’s surely not the case. We’re taught to discriminate customers relationships based on their projected economic value—their propensity to spend and their profitability as customers.

But while we may surely think about customers on this basis and invest disproportionately to drive profitable growth, we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the others. Why? Because customers are by no means static. One day, they may become the ones you covet. They’ll remember. And because detractors are no good for business. It’s much better to have friends.

What I’m suggesting is not some sort of magical thinking, nor is it pure altruism. It’s nothing more or less than the golden rule of customer experience. It’s an ethic of reciprocity: treat customers as you would expect to be treated yourself. Only a little better.

Focus on what you can do to serve their needs, not what you have on the truck to sell.

This starts with empathy.

Your customers will appreciate it and they’ll reward you accordingly.

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