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Customer Obsession? Really?

We hear the call, “Be obsessed with the customer!But, is it a siren’s song? There’s a better strategy out there and it’s a lot safer.

Recently, the ANA (Association of National Advertisers) asked for my thoughts about Customer Obsession for an article on business-to-business marketing. Right out of the gate, though, I challenged the idea.

Is “obsession” really right?

Obsession suggests an almost blinding preoccupation with something. I’m not sure that it’s entirely healthy, from a business or career standpoint, to be totally obsessed with the customer. I think it’s possible, with obsession or being customer-possessed, to lose sight of the internal and external customer-related realities that require objective or informed decision-making.

I’m more of a “customer-centric” guy, where the business or brand puts the customer at the center of decision-making and the business organization. It’s “customer first” with products, processes, policies, even people, developed in an orbit around the customer. It’s not customer only.

I’ll take that even further. What I really believe in is the idea of customer intimacy and enlightenment. I think this idea mitigates “blinding preoccupation” and suggests a more personalized understanding and relationship with the customer and why a brand should be important and meaningful to her or him.

Years ago, I worked with a client who I revere and respect to this day. The client would always emphasize the importance of, and I quote, “living in the shoes of the customer,” whether that customer was a distributor or an end user. The importance of understanding the realities of the customers’ daily lives became the center point of our discussions, plans, strategies and tactics. Which, in turn, generated some of the best and most effective and business-changing work I’ve ever done.

So, to my way of thinking, it’s not so much being obsessed with the customer, it’s being intimately close to the customer and understanding the customer as a person, along with their challenges on the job and off it. And then seeing and using that understanding as enlightenment for developing solutions, products, policies, staff and more to improve the customer’s life.

Why customer intimacy and enlightenment are important in today’s marketplace.

In the context of the competitive environment we live and die in, all of us worry about two key business issues — commoditization and confusion, and they are related.

Commoditization is the enemy of differentiation. Commoditization doesn’t only mean selling something that is virtually identical in nature and substance. Commoditization also can be the effect of things appearing to be the same. That can be an effort by competitive forces, or marketplace forces like procurement departments reducing suppliers to so many Xs and Os, or media clumping your industrial solution with others simply because they both meet a broad industry need, for example.

Confusion is different, but related, because meaningful differentiation among brands becomes so difficult given a plethora of choices. It’s one thing for the customer to have three choices. But, when there are six or 10 or more, it can become almost impossible to determine the relevant differences.

Given how commoditization and confusion can impact customer behavior, or even customer stasis, customer intimacy and enlightenment become important as a more direct route to differentiation and building preference, with the ultimate goal being brand loyalty and advocacy.

Consider my favorite definition of brand loyalty: “The faithfulness of customers to a particular brand, expressed through their repeat purchases, irrespective of the marketing pressure generated by the competing brands.” If a brand can create that faithfulness, and in turn, advocacy among customers, that’s modern-marketing nirvana.

I believe a customer will become loyal to and advocate for a brand that he or she believes knows them, understands them and demonstrates that understanding through products, services and policies that solve their problems and make their everyday business lives, and personal lives, better. When a customer believes a brand is important in their life, trusts it and likes what the brand means to them, that’s everything a brand could hope for. And, that means competitive power, market share and growth.

How to achieve customer intimacy and enlightenment.

The first and most obvious answer to this is doing whatever legwork and brainwork are possible to understand the customer and what the customer wants out of their job, career and life. You want to know not only what the customer needs to do their job better today but also what their objectives are looking years out.

Example: we spent a great deal of time talking to and observing construction tradespeople. Sure, we found that they had definite opinions about brands, products and their jobs. However, in a meaningful percentage of them, we learned that they often thought about — dreamed about — having their own business. This recolored our entire palette of possibilities for strategies, tactics and messaging.

Yes, you can do research, focus groups, customer satisfaction studies, customer panels — all that quantitative and qualitative work that informs teams about the customer as a research subject. That’s important.

But what is equally or more important is finding ways to “step into the customer’s shoes” and experience their life as it’s lived. That may take a more ethnographic approach — getting into the office or board room, onto a construction site, kneeling next to a plumber and watching how he works and what frustrates him. Or, knowing that every billing or shipping error you make with one of your distributors costs them $250 and understanding that if you fix those issues, you’ll save that channel partner thousands of dollars.

Here at Mower, we found that it is possible to increase brand loyalty, even in highly commoditized and price-sensitive environments, by managing four factors:

  1. Product or brand innovation and differentiation
  2. Product or service efficacy over time, or what we call “durability”
  3. One-to-one personal and proactive customer service
  4. Your brand promise, which can never be broken; this is perhaps the most important of the four factors

The other way we like doing it is through the idea of… the customer as a friend. Think for a minute about the relationships you’ve had with your best friends and the qualities that keep you so close. Now, think about how great it would be if your customer relationships had those very same qualities. When there is a bond of friendship between a customer and a brand, earned through the reciprocity of understanding and solutions on one side and repeat purchases and advocacy on the other, well, there is competitive power and growth.

We activate this thinking through what we call Brand as Friend®. It’s a transformational force and practice that builds Affection, Relevance and Trust among customers. We create strategies and tactics around strengthening those three pillars of friendship where necessary. So, a lot of the research we might do would be targeted at understanding where a brand’s weaknesses are and tuning the drivers that address those shortcomings. Some of the drivers that we tweak include Advising and Honesty, or Listening and Caring, or Style and Storytelling.

In the final analysis, what we do is focused on creating a highly unique, highly personal and highly magnetic relationship between brands and customers. A relationship where the parties experience friendliness, meaning and confidence.

Maybe it’s me, but that doesn’t feel or sound like obsession. The song I hear resonates with customer intimacy and enlightenment.