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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 5, 2007 14 years ago

LASDAY: Street Smart Marketing

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The secret to what your customers really want from you and your team.

Street Smart Marketing

Face the Customer

by Lou Lasday

The secret to what your customers really want from you and your team.

Peter Drucker, the most insightful management guru in history, and arguably the most quoted executive in top tier graduate schools of business, made this famous statement: "The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer". It's really a brilliant definition because it avoids questions that would weaken most of the alternatives. What about building profit, developing employees, establishing brands, product value and innovation?

The Drucker definition encompasses what is essential from other definitions of business. His obvious contention, then, may be that an enterprise that succeeds in creating and keeping a customer will inevitably make profit. It will also produce excellent products and services. Creating and keeping customers includes, by implication, everything a business or professional service does.

Vince Thompson, author of "Ignited - Light Up Your Company and Career," concludes that a surprisingly large percentage of mid-size businesses and managers inside those enterprises, behave as if customers or clients are "a nuisance or an afterthought." Even firms that pride themselves on their excellent service betray their real attitudes toward customers in subtle but significant ways.

For example, he says their biggest error may be that they trim "customer-facing" staff first, when the corporate belt needs tightening. Why would any forward-thinking executive cut back marketing activities - media advertising, sales promotion, public relations, direct mail and contact personnel at a time when your competition is cutting back? The media traffic is less congested and you have, at last, a bigger stage on which to perform and tell customers of your own advantage.

A high yield bond

It falls upon upper middle management to keep the enterprise's eye on connecting with customers and make certain those bonds remain strong. This begins with knowing the customers: talking with them, observing them, listening to them and making their issues your issues.

Continually tap the insights of your front-line managers. Depending on your specific professional service or product, they'll have titles like sales consultant, account executive, supervisor or head "something." You know who they are.

If you personally are not "client-facing" and don't have many eyeball-to-eyeball and heart-to-heart relationships, you'll especially need to extrapolate those insights from your team. You'll need to tap your own good skills here because not every front-line manager knows how to communicate the intricacies or nuances of client concerns.

When seeking this critical feedback, avoid yes-or-no type answers. Instead, ask open-ended questions that promote ongoing dialogue. Listen closely for "the message behind the message," which I call the Inner Voice. It's what the customer really means rather than what he actually says. The difference could be dramatic!

It's always the "unspoken concern" that sends, for example, the community bank checking account customer to an independent financial company for their home mortgage, or the Gulf Coast law firm's family estate client going to their old northern lawyer for partnership sales documents, or the corporation accounting client down here, that still wants his C.P.A. "up there" for personal tax work. And how about the financial planner who has corporate portfolios but can't seem to acquire the personal family accounts of the executives involved.

When you ask your Inner Voice questions, don't ask your managers, "Is our pricing too much?" Rather ask, "What are some of the main concerns our customers have?"

Come on in

Look for opportunities to bring customers in-house: Periodic customer forums of substance, "appreciation" parties, open houses, a series of outside speakers, or just "hand carrying" the customer in for a pre-scheduled tour and "sit down" with the president. Require your managers to attend and be proactive with the customer. Then, do a team post-event analysis.

Spend part of every week out in the "real world." You can't learn the landscape if you don't walk in the bushes. This means you must be continually aware of what is going on in your customer's world. See if you can visit one or two of your important people each and every week.

If you manufacture or distribute a product, ask to see it in use. If you offer a professional service, consider asking your contact to allow you to host a Bagel and Brag early breakfast with his partners in his board room. Give them a greeting, a few pertinent case studies, a brochure and a thank you. Then, follow up with another, more personalized telephone thank you!

Accept rejection

Appreciate being unappreciated! If you do get a negative comment, a sour e-mail or an unhappy telephone call, regard that complaint as a gift.

Each one represents an untold number of other customers who share the same negative beliefs; justified or not. Don't shy away. Delve into why your enterprise has been less than satisfactory and react quickly.

Finally, learn from people who are not your customers. Study the options these folks choose when they don't choose your professional options. Then get "inside" those choices and find effective ways to turn negatives into positives.

Many Gulf Coast entrepreneurs like to talk about their closeness to their customers and clients. Few really achieve it! Those that do - and hopefully that's you - have the talent, the persistence and the good common sense to devote important hours of their time to being with customers and really listening to what they have to offer. Remember, when you talk, you hear only what you already know. When you listen, you hear things that you may not know. What is learned could just be the inspiration for your next, new, exciting, profitable corporate vision.

Lou Lasday, an independent marketing adviser residing on Longboat Key, creates action-oriented strategic marketing initiatives for Gulf Coast emerging companies. A career direct response executive, he has been a general partner of a major national marketing communications firm and regional president of the American Marketing Association. Lasday can be reached at [email protected].

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