I once met with a VP of Sales for a Fortune 25 company who argued, “We don’t need to learn about our customers. We just need to execute the plan.” It’s no surprise that, while they were the market leader, they also had the highest percentages of customers who closed accounts each year. As a result the company’s revenues were growing slower than the rest of the market.
It’s easy to get caught up in executing the plan. We’re busy and taking the time to learn about customers cuts into our “productivity.” But if you don’t take that time, how do you know you’re doing the right thing?
Average companies work the plan. Companies with great customer experiences are always hungry to learn more about their customers, so they know they’re doing the right things. Peter Drucker said it best: “The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.” When you take time to understand your customers’ needs it is easier to build your experience around them.
In my interview with Great Clips CEO Rhoda Olsen she spoke about the event that caused her company to realize they needed to get closer to their customers: “We thought we were a pretty customer-focused organization, as everyone does. But when our sales and number of customers dipped for the first time, we realized we needed to better understand the current state of our customer needs.” This led to a focus on customers that has generated in over 30 quarters of consecutive same-salon sales.
As I wrote previously, a sustainable customer experience program begins with Customer Intelligence. Customer Intelligence isn’t just research, although that is part of it. It begins by bringing your customers to life for your employees. Companies with a great customer experience build that experience on their employees’ Customer Intelligence. They understand customers’ needs and build solutions to their problems.
Every company has their own methods to bring their customers to life, but I’ve collected five methods that may work for you:
Customer Panels. Whether your customers are consumers or businesses, customer panels are great ways to understand their needs. Many panels are virtual, but the best companies bring their customers to their staff. Netezza (now owned by IBM) was a 2009 Silver Award Winner in the Gartner and 1to1 Customer Awards. One of their tactics is to bring a customer to their headquarters each month to talk at an all-employee meeting. They discuss what is going right, what needs improvement, and specific business challenges.
Working It. A great B2B customer experience is easier to build if you understand your customers’ challenges. P&G understands this, and built a program called Working It. The program is discussed in more detail in the book “The Game Changer” – a must-read for anybody who wants to create a customer-focused culture. P&G employees go to work at their customers’ retail stores – for example, WalMart or Target. I spoke with a former MoneyGram worker who told me how she used to regularly visit her retail customer sites to shadow employees. Nothing cements a customer’s problems like seeing them first-hand.
Customer Visits. In my interview with Tekserve they outlined their customer visit approach. They visit customers annually to learn about their strategies in the coming year. These are carefully constructed to avoid becoming sales calls. Instead, they focus on such questions as:
- What challenges do you see coming to your business in the next six months?
- What do you want to learn more about?
- What can we do to help you prepare for it?
Similarly, I helped that company mentioned up top (the one with the bad VP) attack a $2 million opportunity through customer visits. By taking the time to leave their offices and visit their customers (the first time they did this), they discovered that their most profitable and effective customers threw out this company’s marketing materials and developed their own. Once they understood why, this company completely revamped their marketing approach, moving from a facts-and-figures approach to story-based marketing.
Immersion. Not for the faint of heart, Immersion is the very best way to learn in detail what your customers do. It’s similar to customer visits, only much deeper, in that you actually visit their homes. P&G has another great example of this in The Game Changer called “Living It.” Immersion, formally called ethnography, is typically a B2C approach involving going to consumers’ homes and watching as they conduct activities. Intuit built their business from this approach, using a program they call “Follow Me Home.” Intuit employees would literally follow customers home after they purchased the software to see how the installation went and how customers walked their way through the software. This led directly to their superior usability.
Personas and Customer Rooms. Personas are visual representations of your customers, including personal traits. Personas bring your customers to life by moving from the statistics-based approach of most segmentation schemes to one which each segment gets a name and a personality. An early example of personas is when Best Buy identified four personas – Jill (the soccer mom), Buzz (the young tech enthusiast), Barry (the corporate vice-president) and Ray (the middle-aged middle-income tech fan). These personas helped employees understand their customers’ needs and drove a number of new value propositions, including the Best Buy Reward Zone Credit Card and the Magnolia store-within-a-store concept. By personalizing customers, it makes it easier for employees to understand their needs.
A great way to communicate the personas is with a Customer Room. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan won a CXPA award through their use of a customer room to explain their Mike, Grace and Lisa segments. A customer room is a specific space that walks viewers through customers and their needs. While you can make it a standalone room as in this example, you may find it more effective to decorate a conference room with your customer information so it is visible as you meet to discuss customer experience improvements.
So why doesn’t everybody build a customer intelligence program? When I suggest that executives visit customers, the consistent feedback I get is that they’re too busy. But aren’t the leaders of great experience companies busy? Rhoda Olsen, the CEO of Great Clips, understands the tendency when she says, “It is so easy to get buried in this fun and exciting stuff [at the corporate office], but we need to get out there.” A.G. Laffley, the former-and-again CEO of P&G, reiterated the importance when he said, “It is always eye-opening to spend time with consumers. I personally make time to visit with shoppers and consumers at least once a month, and I never fail to learn something I can apply to the business.”
It’s not easy to create customer intelligence. But it’s impossible to create a great customer experience if you don’t.