The Key to Success: Listen To Your Customers

Marketing isn’t just for professionals. All of us must see the world from the customer’s point of view!

Doing business on your customers’ terms may sound blindingly obvious, but stop and think for a moment and ask yourself whether you do it.

Customer's Point of View - Vocus Blog

You may think you do. But actually, isn’t it more a case of ‘take it or leave it’?

In reality, do you really give your customers the choice of how they wish to do business with you?

Many business gurus who’ve followed in the footsteps of the legendary Peter Drucker suggest that the sole purpose of a company is to create and retain customers.

Drucker reasoned that since it’s the customer alone that pays for the product or service, then de facto it’s the customer that’s the most important entity within the business.

Indeed, from the 80s bandwagon of TQM (total quality management) to the 90s obsession with CRM (customer relationship management), companies of all shapes and sizes have tried to align themselves to their customers.

Examples of where this has succeeded include Virgin. A modern example of where this is beginning to fall apart (quite spectacularly) is Apple, which once was the toast of the town when it came to being in tune with its customer base.

Since the untimely demise of Steve Jobs, the company is tottering on the apex of being the world’s most valuable brand, as more nimble rivals like Samsung look to steal its crown.

Not all marketers fall into the category that believe the ‘customer is always king’.

A common mistake made by marketers on both sides of the Atlantic is the constant desire to be different from the competition. They tend to be more concerned with looking over their shoulder to see if rivals are closing the gap, than worrying about what their customers think. Competition is about winning over the rivals in the market segment they compete in.

Budget airlines are an excellent example of this type of competitive behaviour, which frankly leaves me cold.

These marketers may actually be quite successful – for now.

They’re the type that will tell you that having a blind obsession with customers can be destructive on gaining the upper hand over the competition.

In the budget airline industry, it’s a commoditised product and service and the lowest price is what drives customer behaviour, they say.

So the battle is with other budget airlines rather than the hearts and minds of fare paying passengers.

It then becomes an obsessive game of trying to be different or unique from the competition rather than any serious attempt of seeing the world from the perspective of the poor beleaguered budget passenger.

But I don’t agree this builds long term value for these businesses.

What marketers need to get better at – and it’s a theme that runs throughout my latest book – The Art of Influencing and Selling - is listening to their customers.

Professor Patrick Barwise, Emeritus Professor of Management and Marketing at London Business School put this very well when he observed: “Customers only really want something better, not necessarily unique.”

According to Professor Barwise, focusing on customer wants and needs – rather than constantly striving to come up with something new and shiny – is the key to long term organic growth for any type of business.

Profitable growth isn’t sustainable without relentless, customer-relevant innovation rather than some manufactured differentiation dreamt up by the marketing department.

Many successful companies realize that they must meet the existing and emerging needs of their customers as well as drive innovation and differentiation in order to build a successful and sustainable business.

In this context, customer orientation isn’t just about bowing to the declared needs of customers but being selective about which customers to work with and then collaborating to understand their real hopes, aspirations and desires.

These marketers are likely to be around for a lot longer and be more commercially successful than some of their counterparts.

They also realize that competitive advantage stems from having the better insights and more profitable customers that in turn drives better innovation and growth.

In a previous post, I discussed what marketers can learn from the airline industry’s approach.

The starting point in this journey for marketers is the ‘customer promise’ that you need to develop and communicate internally as well as externally. Importantly, it must be a relevant customer promise. This means you need to take the perspective of the customer, which means looking from the outside, in.

Once you’ve made a ‘customer promise’, you’ve got to stick to it. No matter what! And if you do that, you’ll gain your customer’s trust and their custom.

Professor Barwise likes to tell the story of how marketers don’t always get this right.

B&Q, part of the Kingfisher Group, is the UK’s leading DIY and garden center retailer and some years ago was terribly proud to be the sponsor of round-the-world yachtswoman, Dame Ellen MacArthur.

But the customer services department wasn’t so thrilled when they received the following letter from an irate customer:

Dear Sir or Madam

My congratulations to you on getting a yacht to leave the UK on 28th November 2004, sail 27,354 miles around the world and arrive back 72 days later. Could you please let me know when the kitchen I ordered 96 days ago will be arriving from your warehouse 13 miles away?

You get the point?

This is a classic disconnect between those sat in the marketing department and the rest of the organisation that’s struggling to deliver a customer experience worth talking about.

One brand owner who does this brilliantly is Amazon. The entire value proposition is built around its customers and satisfying their attitudes, values, beliefs, perceptions and behaviours.

The lesson for marketers today: keep building your business on the foundations of awareness, relevance and trust by following the simple, five steps:

  1. Offer and communicate a clear relevant customer promise;
  2. Build customer trust by reliably delivering on that promise;
  3. Drive the market by continuously improving the offer, while still reliably delivering it;
  4. Get further ahead of your competitors by occasionally innovating beyond the familiar; and
  5. Support all this with an open organizational culture that’s about listening to your customers and seeing the world from their point of view.

Ardi Kolah - The Art of Influencing and SellingArdi Kolah is author of The Art of Influencing and Selling published by Kogan Page. Order your copy today and get a 30% discount by adding the code VOCUS30 on check-out.

For more marketing insight from Ardi, click here

Image: frontrivercle0patra (Creative Commons)

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