Customers Are Coworkers: What CX Can Learn From HR

Last verified May 20, 2021

Guess that job!

Let’s start with a quick game. I am going to provide some (lightly edited) requirements from real job descriptions, and I want you to guess what the job is. Cover up the answer under these bullet points. Read through them, and decide what you think the job description is. Then uncover the answer when you’re ready.

  • Onboard, train, and assist new customers through their lifecycle with our product

  • Collect customer feedback and communicate with product management to facilitate continuous improvement of product

  • Develop a range of materials including one-page feature guides, horizontal and vertical best practice kits, webinars, custom trainings for large teams, and more

  • Investigate ways to improve existing customer experience processes and fix pain points through automation, streamlining, and shared services

If you guessed Customer Success Manager (CSM), you’re right! Easy, huh? CSM is a relatively new job, but it’s becoming increasingly popular.


Now let’s do that again with a different job description. Try to guess what kind of person we’re looking for here:

  • Onboard, train, and assist new employees through different stages of their career at our company

  • Collect employee feedback and communicate with executive team to facilitate continuous improvement of our culture and practices

  • Develop a range of materials for benefits information, cultural engagement, and team events

  • Investigate ways to improve existing internal operations processes and fix pain points through automation, streamlining, and shared services

This is a job posting for a People Ops Associate (kudos if you’re two for two on guessing these!). But notice how similar the two are! If we replaced any instance of “customer” or “employee” with “people”, the two job postings would be completely identical:

  • Onboard and train people

  • Collect feedback from people

  • Develop materials for people

  • Improve processes to make things easier for people

How much does your job title really matter?

Getting out of your silo

We are now seeing the silos between internal departments that once helped startups grow into monoliths become more of a hindrance than a helper. More and more companies are defaulting to open communication across all teams. At Guru, we create software that helps teams break those silos and share knowledge more freely.

In the spirit of that, I believe that customer experience professionals (CX) have a lot to learn from people operations and human resources (HR).

CX and HR want the same things from their respective audiences:

  • They want to build (customer / employee) loyalty that will lead to long relationships with the company

  • They want to help the (customer / employee) achieve success in reaching their desired outcomes

  • They want to tackle any challenges the (customer / employee) may have with the company in a way that wins trust

The key difference is in the name assigned to their audience.

I’ve been researching a lot of HR-directed resources , and I want to share what I’ve learned with my fellow CX professionals so that you can start treating your customers like coworkers too. The lessons I’ve found fall into three main categories:

  1. Be transparent, not translucent

  2. Have human conversations, not transactional meetings

  3. Build a community; don’t do this alone

How we got here

Before I get too much further into the lessons learned, I want to shed some light onto how I came to learn them. In 2018, I was working with Eraj Siddiqui, Director of Customer Success Practice at Autodesk on implementing multiple tools (Guru, Slack, and Gainsight) at once internally. We ended up stumbling upon something beautiful and interesting: fostering solution interdependencies created this virtuous cycle where the tools all drove adoption of each other.

Eraj called this “Customer success for your internal customers”, and it’s a really cool idea: Taking the customer success practices you know and love, and applying them internally to the people you work with every day. You can read more about it here.


It’s not the first time I’ve heard the phrase “internal customers”, but applying it to this story clicked on a light bulb in my brain. If a customer could be either internal or external, why couldn’t a coworker be either internal or external?“External coworker” seems like a weird thing to say, but the more I dug into it, the more everything clicked. The more I read from HR thought leaders, the better prepared I felt to deliver exceptional experiences for my customers.

To answer a question I’m sure you have in your head: Yes, this can be seen from the other side, too. This is absolutely a two-way street, and I’m sure HR has just as much to learn from CX as CX has to learn from HR. But as a CSM myself, I’m more interested in the lessons CX can gain. Besides, Eraj Siddiqui is already hard at work building out his “internal customer success” idea (go see him speak at Empower!).

My hope here is that after reading this, you will be inspired to break the information silo between CX and HR at your own company and share skills to empower each other in the pursuit of a common goal. Here's how:

Be transparent, not translucent

The word “transparent” gets tossed around a lot without much thought paid to it. Of Guru’s core values, “We’re Transparent” is the one that requires the least explanation, because people naturally see that and understand what it means.


However, I’d argue that what most companies consider transparency is really translucence. Some information passes through, but not all. It’s the equivalent of showing someone how to do something through frosted glass, rather than a clear window.

More and more in employee relations we’re seeing a move to cultures of radical transparency. CEOs are more honest and upfront about the inner workings of the business. This trend started at small startups out of necessity, but it is becoming increasingly popular in large enterprises as a way to improve the quality of work. At Autodesk, for example, the entire organization has begun to embrace a culture of “default to open”, where everyone has access to everyone else’s work through public Slack channels.

CX could learn a thing or two about transparency. In a 2017 study by Label Insight, up to 94% of consumers responded that they were more loyal to brands that were transparent. At social media management company Buffer, their approach to radical transparency internally has translated to them also delivering exceptional customer service.

How can your team be more transparent?

  • Set realistic expectations from the outset, whether you’re planning a project or reporting a bug.

  • Be honest about your personal limitations and the limitations of your product. You’ll be amazed at how well people respond to you showing your humanity.

  • Keep communication lines open internally! The more you know, the more you can share with your customers.

Have human conversations, not transactional talks

If you’ve been in CX for long enough, you know that empathy is everything. Connecting with your customers on a human level and making them feel truly heard is the difference between someone churning and someone staying with your company for life.

But the same way a batter is always perfecting her swing, a CX pro should always be working on her empathy. The minute you get comfortable with your skillset, you run the risk of focusing too much on the customer’s renewal or your CSAT score, and the conversation can turn into a transaction.

Here’s where we have the most to learn from HR, because creating a safe space where employees feel like they can talk about anything is the core of every HR organization. You might have a goal tied to your customer interactions, like CSAT or renewals, but HR’s only goal when having conversations with you is to make you feel heard and respected.

How can you be more human in your conversations?

  • Figure out what your customer’s communication style is and adjust yourself accordingly so you’re speaking the same language.

  • In meetings with your customers, create a structure that allows everyone to get what they need out of it.

  • Allow for space, pauses, and awkwardness. Don’t be defensive, and work towards what the customer needs.

Build a community; don’t do this alone

The Amish don’t use power tools, but they can raise a barn in a single day. Why? Because they harness the power of their entire community to help. Many hands make light work.

Leading companies do the same thing when onboarding new hires. While there is always an individual or team responsible for creating a great onboarding experience, they don’t shoulder the entire burden; rather they bring in others to help the new hire feel at home fast. Here at Guru, we use Donut to match up people who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily meet.

Your customers want this same experience. They want to know how other customers are using your product effectively. Case studies are one thing, but actually getting to connect with other customers is a game changer. This is why some companies create User Groups that meet regularly to talk about best practices for using the tool. And it’s why we started Empower!

What’s next?

The very nature of work is changing with the rise of AI. We at Guru recognize how that will affect Customer Experience teams, and HR leaders are aware of this change, too. Let’s start working together to make a better future.

My challenge to you is to reach out to your peers in HR and trade skills that will help both of you improve your roles. Whatever hat you wear in the CX world, here is who you should reach out to, and a question you can ask to get these conversations started:

  • Customer success managers: Talk to talent development. How can you work together to define your accomplishments when your roles are based on helping other people achieve success?

  • Customer support representatives: Talk to employee relations. How do you fight compassion fatigue and burnout?

  • Implementations specialists: Talk to your internal onboarding team. How do you create great first experiences for people?

I’ll be going into more depth on this topic at ElevateCX in Denver, April 26 - 27. Use promo code GURU for $50 off when you register here so they know I sent ya!