Whether its B2B, B2C, global enterprise or local start-up, commercial or non-for-profit, all types of business can benefit from becoming more customer-centric. But what does that mean, what does that look like, and how can you achieve it without recreating your business from the ground up?
True customer centrism is as much an attitude, an approach, as it is a model or structure, which means if companies want to take advantage of all the positives derived from knowing and treating your customers better, it all starts at the top, it’s built into your corporate or organizational culture, deeply interwoven into your corporate DNA. It’s one of several facets of business where you can’t just “talk the talk,” you HAVE to “walk the walk” every day, day after day, from all employees, customer-facing or not.
OK, so now that you have the attitude adjusted, it’s time to check the altitude. That requires some real, trusted, correctly executed research data. But where do you start? One aspect of research data is that it’s like lettuce, it needs to be fresh to be at it’s best. Which means you need to develop a way of gathering data from your customers that you can rely on to be accurate, to pull from a high-confidence sample size, and can be put in place relatively quickly and can be relaunched on a regular basis, once a baseline is established. Surveys can be used in some instances, depending upon what you’re trying to accomplish. Our preferred methodology is the IDI, or In-Depth Interview. It’s a semi-scripted conversation, 30-60 minutes in length, guided by a pre-written discussion guide, executed by trained researchers, NOT telemarketers, who can hold an intelligent conversation with a wide range of professionals and consumers. That conversation is geared toward gathering not only facts about your customers buying habits and purchase patterns, but about their attitudes, feelings, preferences, and moods regarding your products, services or brand. Many of those will be driven by their most recent experience with your company, usually an interaction with either billing or customer service representatives. Keep this in mind when doing the data analysis later, its one of the reasons why research data needs to be fresh.
Each IDI is recorded, transcripts made, each question response is then tabulated, and the responses segmented into positive and negative piles, or into a range of “buckets” based on type of response, severity of feeling, and prevalence among respondents. Those data points are given to three analysists (in our practice, anyway), and three independent analyses are written up based on the same data, to mitigate bias and skew. That’s the basic methodology, but the key to using these successfully comes in the performance of the questions themselves – if you don’t ask the “right” questions, you can’t act appropriately on the answers and achieve the desired result. That’s where the magic happens.
Now that you have your data, and have done the analysis, now what? Data is just dumb numbers and words unless it leads to, or can be converted into, some positive action with respect to your customers. Some of the data will be most useful in making adjustments operationally to customer-facing processes. Is your fulfillment process causing problems, is the return policy too restrictive or difficult, is your phone tree routing system too complex or directing people insufficiently or are the menu options wrong – those are things that can be adjusted and shifted based on the data in a very direct way. They make a big difference in the customer experience, and can certainly affect their attitudes and emotions toward the company in the short term. It gets a bit more complex when you start examining some of the deeper attitudes and preferences about the company and its brand, what the company and it’s products mean to them emotionally, what feelings does the brand bring out in them, and why. Those are brand-linked attitudes and emotions, formed after repeated interactions and touch points with the company, its outreach materials and products. It’s much tougher to pin down the cause of these aggregate attitudes, but worth the time if you can make a correction that rights the brand’s direction going forward.
At this point, many of the smaller B2B companies and service firms are thinking, ”isn’t that up to our sales people to assess those things and listen to their customers and shape their offer and interaction accordingly?” Even if your transaction volume is very low and your client number correspondingly low, there is still much to learn about your customers by doing research, and to be able to adjust your marketing to find more of them as a result. In fact, smaller, lower volume firms can make a bigger impact by paying attention to brand influence and making customer-centric adjustments than a larger firm can – small changes make a bigger difference in their bottom line, and a small increase in customer volume makes a bigger difference financially as a percentage of overall revenue.
It’s said in the psychiatric profession that admitting you need help puts you half way to a cure. Becoming customer centric as a business is a similar situation – by discovering that you can improve your growth, meet objectives, increase revenue and profit by knowing your customer better and serving their needs more directly, you’ve already planted the seeds of that first attitude adjustment step, a big move forward in the process. Communicating that attitude down through the rank and file so that it becomes pervasive throughout the firm is the next step. Strong belief, direct simple communication, and a solid, positive example shown in every corporate action is the key to building a more customer-centric organization. No time like the present to get started. If you don’t know where to start, we’d be happy to help.