Your customers are not machines. You can target, track and acquire them, but you’re still dealing with conscious, emotional organisms. And no matter where your numbers move or what the ROI says, your brand’s successes and failures could be a series of accidents until you recognize customers as human beings, not men age 22 to 35 with four years of college and $75,000 to $125,000 in income.
So how do you honor your customer’s humanity? In a world overloaded with choices, content and reviews, in what practical ways can you guide how customers relate to your brand?
If you’re a multichannel merchant, the answer to this challenge begins with your employees and it comes to a head in your storefront.
Why It Starts With Employees
Whether people buy from your or work for you, they have values, emotions and aspirations. So before you think about customers, you have to examine how employees relate to your brand.
In a recent op-ed in The New York Times titled “Why You Hate Work,” consultant Tony Schwartz and Georgetown business professor Christine Porath shared their findings from a 2013 survey on workplace quality of life. 50 percent of respondents said they did not have a “level of meaning and significance,” “connection to [their] company’s mission” or a “sense of community” in their job. Roughly a third of respondents reported having these things in their workplace. And if only 30 percent of American employees feel “engaged” at work, according to a 2013 Gallup report, what percentage of consumers can possibly feel engaged by brands?
For the purposes of this article, let’s limit our employee base to the people that customers frequently interact with: sales associates, customer service, cashiers, baristas and the like. Because I’m very generous with reality, let’s pretend that suddenly all of your sales associates love their job, love your brand and want to share it. Would that solve the challenge of building a human brand that people relate to?
The Storefront Mental Experiment
So all your sales associates now love your brand, but I would argue that this is still inadequate when it comes to connecting with customers.
When you go the Foot Locker, you could be shopping for one of ten different varieties of shoes, each associated with ten different types of people and subcultures. At Home Depot, you’ll find families shopping for lawn furniture a few isles away from carpenters picking up work supplies.
In these two cases, the diversity of the customer base means that your average employee is likely the wrong person for a given customer. Personally, if I go to Foot Locker to buy running shoes, I’d love to speak with someone who is passionate and knowledgeable about running, athleticism and fitness. This is one reason I would go to Foot Locker instead of order shoes on Zappos. Not only would I enjoy the conversation, but I suspect the knowledgeable associate would guide me to a better pair of shoes than a website or someone who could care less about running. Likewise, a carpenter shopping for plywood at Home Depot wants a man versed in carpentry, not a guy who can pick out stylish lawn furniture.
So even with a passionate workforce, you still might not have employees who can connect with your customer base—or at least not all of it. This begs the question: who are your customers and how do you figure that out?
Wrapping Humanity into Strategy
So your customers are not men age 22 to 35, college educated and making $75,000 to $125,000. No, they are human beings with sophisticated values, beliefs, tastes and cultural preferences. And right now, you may have no idea why they buy your product. All you know is that they come to you from a variety of backgrounds, and they want to be helped by people who share their interests. This suggests three key takeaways:
You need to study your customers like an anthropologist making first contact with an Amazonian tribe. The anthropologist looks at patterns in beliefs, customs and behavior, not spending brackets. Study who your customers really are based on what they think and do. Social media provides the most accessible vantage point for this process. Afterwards, you can begin making HR and marketing choices based on observed values.
Your brand, employees and customers all need something in common. You can determine what that shared link is. Dove stands for “Real Beauty”, Lululemon is “Elevating the world from mediocrity to greatness” and Trek wants to make bicycles the solution to complex transportation and environmental problems. What do you stand for? Does it match who your customers are?
At the highest level, you have a mission that galvanizes your employees and customers, but at the level of product, do you have the right people? If Home Depot is grounded in do-it-yourself (DIY) values, it needs a diverse set of representatives who help customers complete projects in 17 categories of goods. Similarly, Foot Locker needs reps who can talk tennis, running and basketball shoes with people who play those sports. Instead of filling your store with paid bodies, fill your store with people who have specific, valuable interests.
You’re not your age, your college degree or your wallet and neither are your customers. Engage them like humans if you want to have control over what your brand means to people.
Jonathan Levitt is CMO of customer experience agency SonicBoom.