Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Should you Take Care of your Customers?

Sometimes it feels like business would be so much better without customers.  We could go about our internal meetings without problems, set-up strategies that we like and understand, decide where the  funds should go…life would be so easy…no customers, no cry (to paraphrase a famous song). Of course, this scenario conveniently forgets that it is the customer who pays our bills. 
 
There is no doubt that the customer should be at the centre of every business strategy and yet, it often feels like focusing on them comes as an afterthought, a single paragraph in a business plan, nothing more (the famous “Them” and “Us” strategy.) 
 
Let’s face it, while the title of this article would make any marketer cringe, it is still common practice to make decisions without the customer in mind…and remain successful (but for how long?) 
 
Thinking about the customer is not a natural function for many businesses. Even many marketing departments avoid it, despite the fact that their very reason for being is to understand their customer. After all, isn’t marketing’s favourite discussion about how well they understand the customer, often better than anyone else in the company?  
 
Unfortunately, even the relationship between ‘marketers’ and customers is being eroded and in today’s fragmented business place, customer interaction and customer treatment is often managed by a branch manager, a Customer Relationship Manager, a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solution or even a web site or call system. If you critically analyse many businesses, you will find that many marketing decisions simply have little impact on customers. 
 
Remember the 4Ps?  
 
There was a time when marketing was defined by the 4Ps (Price, Place, Product and Promotion.) In Asia, very few marketers really manage them all as they are either decided in headquarters or by someone with no direct marketing responsibility. 
 
The 4Ps are gone 
 
The complexities of delivery, promoting to the right people, business in general, have shown over and over again that businesses must strive to understand their customer beyond products and demographics, beyond the marketing department. 
 
Interestingly, most of us as consumers have experienced instances that suggest many companies simply do not care much about us. And yet we seldom take this learning back to our own businesses. 
 
There is an old proverb that states, “If you cannot smile, do not open a shop.” This simple admonition should be enough to decide if you have what it takes to take care of customers days-in, days-out. After all, customers are becoming more and more sophisticated, more and more aware and more and more involved with the brands they choose (and therefore less and less involved with the brands they do not choose.) 

The practice of taking care of your customers revolves primarily around three main actors on the business stage: the customer, the marketer and the business owner. There are, of course, many other stakeholders but it is these three that drive the business. 
 
The case of the “sophisticated” customer 
 
“We all are customers” should be the new mantra. But are we all good customers? 
 
It is obvious to state that customers around the world have become more sophisticated. Today they have the power to compare price, buy abroad, buy directly or online, travel more and shop more. Even more importantly, they know they can complain to the right person (often with less effort than going through ‘customer service’.) 
 
This sophistication is at a cross-roads however. Today, the customer can no longer assume that companies will try to get his business. Let’s face it, we should hardly expect corporations to treat us well if we are not ready to commit, if we are not ready to be involved in their success.  
 
This could mean focusing on one brand per category, for example, in return for which we could rightly expect to be recognized as a “good” customer. We must face the fact that corporations are becoming Masters at recognizing that not all customers are created equal.  
 
When you are bombarded with irrelevant offers and other marketing messages, deciding to be a good customer is a Life strategy. If you don’t, your life could become more and more difficult to manage. 
 
We have the right to select one brand and ask to be treated correctly. We have the right to put all our accounts into one bank and then ask to be treated well…if we don’t, then we have nothing much to ask in return for our lack of commitment. 
 
Marketing Tip: Understanding that the customer is as sophisticated as he or she wants to be (no more, no less) could reduce the numerous marketing mistakes we make by trying to be too clever, too cute or to humorous 
 
The case of the “sophisticated” marketer 
 
At the same time as customers were becoming more sophisticated, so were marketers – helped in no small part by the advent of the Internet. 
 
Marketing as a discipline has changed in the past 100 years, and not always for the better. Reading some of the older marketing texts from 60+ ago, it seems that they might have been more in touch with customers then that today. It also seems that they knew better their role in the growth of the business. 
 
Today’s marketer is often so sophisticated than he or she has lost touch with customers. Hidden behind research numbers and focus groups, the marketer often has a warped view of what the customer true behaviour really is. Analytics based on behaviour is very much in vogue and is an attempt to regain that lost knowledge.  
 
While thankfully not all marketers are so remote, we all should be careful of the “ivory tower” syndrome and ensure that we and our team get down in the trenches where customers are voting with their credit card. 
 
Marketing Tip: Keeping an open mind and constantly ask the right questions (like how can I help sales?) The consumer is the only one who can say if a marketing campaign works, everything else is an opinion. 
 
The case of the “sophisticated” business owner 
 
Last but not least, the role of the business owner in serving the customer cannot be ignored. While not always in their midst, his or her beliefs and business philosophy will determine whether a company becomes customer centric or not. The danger is, once again, to be too remote. Never treat customers as numbers - or even worse, as financial numbers. It is that simple. If the business leader is not customer centric, no amount of internal training or strategy will make the company focus on the customer. 
 
From experience, it looks like the way people are paid has a direct effect on the company’s customer strategy. If sales people, for example, are paid to bring in business but not nurture the relationship,  then customer will not get much post-sales service. In all fairness, that’s not their role is this example. Can you imagine, however, a customer who only sees a sales person when they want something? What are the mid and long term implications? Would this impact the overall company’s brand? You bet it would, and most probably negatively. 
 
Marketing Tip: If you are a marketer and your most difficult customer is the General Manager, change job. You want to work for someone who will use all the best tools available to succeed, including  marketing 

Remember… 
 
Becoming a customer centric organization is no longer a strategic question, it’s a necessity. You have to become one. If you don’t your competition will and your customers will follow them. And while you can use all the technology you need to enable your business to be customer centric, if your business philosophy focuses on something else, you will never achieve that goal. 
 
- The customer should be at the centre of every business strategy (easier said than done but not impossible) 
- The 4Ps are gone, move on 
- Customers are “sophisticated” (and we are all customers) 
- Marketers are “sophisticated” (sometime too much for our own good. Let’s refocus on helping sales) 
- If the company owner does not believe in marketing, you might be fighting a loosing battle 
- And don’t forget, your sales force focuses on what they get paid for, NOTHING else 

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