Put Your Customers First: A Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Consumer-First Culture

Creating a consumer-first culture sounds a bit like it should be common sense. Of course, our business model should be about the consumer first, but what does that mean, and how to create such a culture? And why is it more complex than it sounds? That’s what I discuss in this article.

This articles covers the following:

What does consumer first mean?

“Consumer-first to me is not this idea of ‘consumer-only,'” said Jennifer Pembroke Johnson, a global insights leader, on “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show.” “It’s also not just validation. We shouldn’t just connect with consumers to validate, which is what we’ve done. It’s including consumers in the conversation from the get-go.”

Read next: How to involve consumers from the get-go using the design thinking process

The consumer, Jennifer explained, is part of the process of developing new offerings, just like other stakeholders.

Consumer-first culture "If the consumer is part of it, we should include them in the conversation from the get-go."

Jennifer said that in an authentic consumer-first culture, the consumers are included in the learning and development. So you might wonder: “But we already bring customers into the process.” And many companies do, but Jennifer said that usually happens a ways into the process.

“So consumer-first means literally starting with the consumer,” said Jenn Mancusi, CRO at Voxpopme.

And we must understand that, as Jennifer said, it’s not “consumer-only,” because, as Jenn said, there are business decisions that need to be made, and those would come from internal stakeholders. But those internal stakeholders also should consult with consumers. And the process needs to be driven from an internal company point of view.

“The consumer isn’t going to ask us for and say ‘I want this,'” Jennifer said. “I don’t expect a consumer to say, ‘I want a new iPhone with a better camera. Longer battery life. And I want it to be able to dance.’ A consumer won’t say that. Maybe there are desired outcomes that we can ascertain from a consumer.”

Read next: 7 steps to conduct research successfully

Hearing what consumers mean

Consumers often can’t verbalize the specifics. But they can say what problem they might have or need is going unfilled.

“Our consumers shouldn’t have to tell us how to do our job,” she said. “We should build that foundation and then ladder up to what that opportunity is.”

Jennifer said that to understand what consumers are truly doing, we have to be open to looking at different situations in different ways.

“It’s the difference between people telling you what’s in their pantry and you standing in their kitchen and opening up their pantry with them and pulling out some things that may delight and surprise because they are different from what they claimed the behavior was.”

Being inquisitive and wanting to learn more is the first step to creating that consumer-first culture.

Why do some companies struggle with a consumer-first culture?

At times, it can be legacy behaviors, which can come back to:

  • people
  • structure
  • workflows
  • expectations
  • decisions

“Oftentimes, in legacy organizations, insights have been just a support function,” Jennifer said. “And they are gatekept through other parts of the organization.”

It can sometimes be the unwillingness to change, adopt new technologies, or even a preconceived notion that one research strategy is less valuable than another.

"You can have that legacy behavior where people aren't on board with including the consumer."

At times, companies change something to benefit the company, but it might not necessarily improve things for the consumer. That could be a cost-cutting measure that negatively impacts consumers. Or somebody is married to an idea to update a feature without knowing whether consumers are even interested in it.

“Yes, we can make it,” Jennifer said. “Yes, we can make a piece of gum that has glitter on it, superpowers and caffeine. We can put all those things in because we have the capability. And I think they get caught up in capability, but you still want somebody to buy that.”

Lack of budget can stand in the way. Unfortunately, so can the preconceived notion that research is expensive.

“And it can be expensive,” Jennifer said. “You can spend gobs of money to learn things, but you can also do them more effectively and efficiently.”

How to operate as a consumer-first business

To get started, somebody on the team has to have the expertise of understanding the market, the consumer, and the company’s strengths. And then, of course, how do we combine all those pieces with seeing opportunities and moving forward.

“Anyone can write a simple survey,” Jennifer said. “But the expertise that we have built as insights professionals is to understand the nuance and the detail that we want to leverage to write a better survey.

Read next: Best practices for survey design in research

Consumer-first businesses have the proper toolbox of quant and qual solutions that they can pull on at the correct times. They use the tech stack that’s best for them to understand their consumers – including automation and may even use augmented reality in a research project when it makes sense. Other times, they may conduct remote interviews or asynchronous video interviews.

"Leveraging insights expertise is super important."

Jennifer said that talking to consumers used to be more of a time-intensive effort. Today, with agile software, you can get consumer feedback in hours, something even well-established companies – like 135-plus years-old Avon – now do.

Consumer-first businesses use these technologies, coupled with expertise to keep the consumer involved.

How to create a consumer-first culture

To get started, companies have to make up their minds that consumers should be involved in the process. That includes understanding the value, the process, and how to get there.

“We need to act like we are partners,” Jennifer said. “We need to take the initiative in how we show up and how we engage with others in our organization.”

People that work in a consumer-first culture have collaborative but also challenging conversations. Challenging conversations are more effortless by using collaborative language:

  • I would be happy to partner with you. Here’s how I can help…
  • Offer insights and help in specific areas.

“Set the trajectory of that conversation,” Jennifer said. “Have those talking points. What is the elevator speech when you are in those conversations with those stakeholders? How will you demonstrate the payoff that they will get by including you? The difference between you being there and not being there.”

As consumer behaviors and trends change so quickly nowadays, more brands see the importance of building that consumer-first culture, added Jenn.

Read next: [Consumer Study] What are the biggest tech trends?

And companies have to mean that they are really consumer-first, said Marnie Steffe, insights and innovation director at Elida Beauty and a member of the Voxpopme Advisory Board.

“When there are presentations, the expectation is already built in that there will be consumer feedback,” she said about how a consumer-first culture operates.

Partnerships in the company to succeed

Consumer-first businesses see different teams as partners. For example, Jennifer said that the insights team isn’t just a supplier of information, but they are partners with other teams in the process. Zoe Dowling of Microsoft said the partnership also needs to extend into relationships with vendors.

Giving insights a seat at the table and seeing and treating them as partners can help businesses be more consumer-first, Jennifer said.

“It eliminates the telephone game of what those outstanding questions are, but also allows us to impart expertise and knowledge that we already have,” Jennifer said.

Results-driven teams also align with the goals and move forward in their respective expertise areas. Teams pick their strategies based on the purposes and don’t just start with the process.

“Is that answering the question if we are not talking about the question but are only talking about the methodology?” Jennifer said. “In that case, oftentimes, we are answering the wrong thing.”

Instead, determine:

  • What’s the question we are trying to answer?
  • How will we use that information?
  • Where are we in the learning journey?

“That’s super important to determine what methodology we would select,” Jennifer said. “Let’s slow down to speed up.”

Read next: How to ask inclusive demographic questions in your market research

Determine what the budget can be used for

Instead of saying, “we don’t have the budget,” consider answering, “what budget do you have?” And then see what can be accomplished with that budget, said Jennifer.

Know when to use the budget for specific expertise.

“Insights professionals bring a world of expertise and knowledge and know-how that can amplify and take what we are doing from good to great,” Jennifer said.

We want research to answer a holistic business question through a strategic lens and bring the different pieces of the puzzle together, Jennifer said.

“It’s about taking it from one dimension into three dimensions and getting the organization to feel like the consumer is sitting with them on the journey,” Jennifer said.

Using the right strategies and tools

From journey mapping to segmentation to day-in-the-life exercises, it’s important to pick the best tool and strategy to interact with consumers, said Brian on BRIght Ideas.

How to enable companies to be consumer-first

This is where relationships come in. Jennifer said teams in a consumer-first culture collaborate and talk to each other. They share knowledge and insights and are part of the process.

Teams use the right technology to access centralized data and gather insights to fit with best practices and reach business goals.

To be consumer-first, the culture also needs to be an established and explicit behavior by the company:

We are consumer-first and show that by:

Tips to multitask

It also means that sometimes we have to re-prioritize what we are currently working on and multitask efficiently. Brian Monschein, Voxpopme’s vice president of research, offered these tips on multitasking successfully.

Make a to-do list

“If you are tackling multiple projects at once, it’s always good to have it all organized in one place,” he said. “The nice thing about that is when you are done with each task, you get to cross it off.”


Not all tasks have the same level of importance. In a consumer-first culture, make sure to assign a higher priority to those tasks that can have the most significant impact.

You can assign a number to each item in order to get them done. Or Brian uses the ABCD method, with the most essential items being assigned an A, slightly less essential items a B, and so forth.

“If you had some Cs on there and didn’t finish them today, it’s probably not a big deal,” he said.

Group similar tasks and work in blocks of time

It can be easier to keep focus when tasks are similar. Therefore, try to group somewhat similar tasks.

“Hopefully, you can knock those all out at once while you are working on things,” Brian said. “Grouping those things is a plus.”

That also includes blocking time for these tasks and working in those designated blocks. And remember to take breaks.

“Your mind can only focus so much, and getting some breaks in there is going to help,” he said. “Take a walk, watch a podcast or try some meditation.”

Avoid distractions

Admittedly, that’s not always easy to do, but try to turn notifications off when possible. Put the phone away. If you are working at home, establish a designated office space.

“It’s always good to have that space, and it’s meant for working,” he said. “You know that, and so does everyone else in your house. That way, you can focus as much as you can.”

Focus on the small wins

Even if you didn’t get to everything, only the As – the most essential parts – celebrate those. They were, after all, the most important tasks of the day!

"The multitasking is huge because we are often a small and mighty team."

Being consumer-first – involving the consumer along the way – can be beneficial for the customer and the business. But we have to talk to consumers and hear what they are saying to truly create that culture.

Like this article? Read more like it here. 

What’s a question you’d like to ask consumers?