Customer-Centric Communication

Marketers have been thinking about, teaching and practicing the art of customer relevance since the first peddlers hawked their wares. Yet each generation of marketers has claimed the invention of customer-centricity without regard for the fact that relevance is an evolutionary concept.

Three practices have been, and continue to be, necessary to understand and develop relationships with customers: 1) Asking and answering the right questions; 2) Understanding and deploying communication tools; and 3) Deftly using the tools to enable the full range of communications relevant to customers.

The act of communication is now part of the relevance equation — not just what is being communicated and where. The marketer’s responsibility to develop and guide the message has never been more intricate.

The five stages of customer-centric marketing

The following five steps form the basis for a customer-centric marketing and merchandising effort:

  • Stage 1: Collect and analyze customer intelligence

  • Stage 2. Develop customer requirements

  • Stage 3. Product and process development

  • Stage 4. Message development and delivery

  • Stage 5. Feedback

The Internet has created opportunities to expand our definition of customer-centricity well in advance of our mastery of the current requirements. The art of messaging must now take into account customer desire and ability to interact with companies and with other consumers about marketing messages.

Feedback is no longer just a loop to be explored, reacted to, and closed. Rather, feedback has become a continuous effort within customer-centric marketing, extending the messaging phase and conceding some marketing control to customers in the process. Let’s take a closer look at the three key practices in building customer relationships.

Asking and answering the right questions

Until recently, customer relevance has been approached as a process that gathers customer intelligence and uses that intelligence to frame customer requirements. Though you can use a variety of methods to do this, all methods essentially ask these 10 questions:

  1. Why do my customers purchase my products or services?

  2. Which features and benefits of my products are meaningful to customers?

  3. How do my products stand out in customers’ minds?

  4. How do my customers use my products?

  5. Are any of my customers using my products in a manner that surprises me?

  6. What are the biggest hassles my customers encounter when buying from me, and what could I do to eliminate those hassles?

  7. Are there any specific barriers to being my customer? If so, how can I remove them?

  8. Which of my customers require substantially more or less sales attention than the others? Why? What insights can I glean from this?

  9. If my business were shuttered, to whom would it matter, and why? Which of my customers would miss me the most? How long would it take another business to fill the void?

  10. If I were just launching my company today, would I sell the same things? What would be different?

Though modern marketers approach these questions with more sophistication and technology than their forebears, the questions have changed little over time.

To maximize the value of Stages 4 (messaging) and 5 (feedback), marketers must add three more questions to their relevance repertoire:

  • 11. What experience does my customer associate with my products, and how can I create an experience that adds value beyond the inherent value of the product/service?

  • 12. What methods of communication are most relevant to my customers?

  • 13. How do these methods affect the messages?

Question 12 is not a new invention of modern marketers, who ask this question as part of the messaging stage. But it takes on more importance as analysts use it to inform Stage 5 (feedback), and as marketers strive to master new tools.

In the past, the results of customer-centric planning looked like a checklist of requirements developed during the customer inquiry and analysis process. Ideally, those requirements were used to direct the product development and messaging stages.

Customer relevance today is a mix-and-match game, with a column of customer product/service preferences on the left, and a column of customer communications preferences on the right. Today’s marketer must ascertain the optimum relationships between customer preferences in both columns. Once that work is complete, Question 13 should be applied as an overlay.

Understanding and deploying communication tools

Keeping abreast of changes in technology is important, but focusing solely on the technology risks missing the most important aspect of these new marketing environments: message impact. As mentioned earlier, communication is now part of the relevance equation — not just what is being communicated. This represents a subtle but significant shift in communication theory.

When Marshall McLuhan wrote The Medium is the Message in 1964, he could not have anticipated the dramatic changes that would take place at the beginning of this century. Yet his theory, that messages are inextricably influenced by the medium in which they are carried, is as true today as it was more than 40 years ago. One must understand how communication methods influence marketing messages — not just for new media, but for all communication channels.

Customer centric marketing requires that marketers carefully consider each medium in the context of the core message, surrounding messages, social influence, and customer preferences and perceptions. Developing an understanding of how each medium is perceived and experienced by customers will lead to awareness of how messages might be influenced by the mediums chosen.

Using the tools to enable relevant communication

Sony BMG’s promotion of the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album provides an excellent example of this new thought process. Faced with an inability to get its eccentric star on tour, and sensitive to his tarnished reputation, Sony BMG had to find a new way to make the Thriller 25 album relevant to today’s music buyer.

The company’s approach? To ask professional dancers around the world to stage the indelible zombie dance in public venues from London’s Chinatown to Cophenhagen’s busiest train terminal. The largest audience for one of these performances registered in the low hundreds.

But each performance was posted on YouTube, and these videos have been downloaded nearly 1.5 million times. At the point of download viewers can access the Michael Jackson YouTube site, where a promotion of the 25th anniversary album has been viewed over 600,000 times. User-generated content sent consumers to YouTube for the videos, and the story became interesting enough to be picked up by the major papers.

The Sony BMG promotion combined old-fashioned publicity with newer-fangled guerrilla marketing by exploiting the newest forms of Internet promotion. In the first week of release the new album rocketed into the number-one spot on Billboard’s Top Pop chart and placed in the top-five or better rankings in music markets around the world.

Perhaps Sony BMG stumbled into this idea through sheer luck. But imagine that its marketers carefully considered all the aspects of this challenging marketing situation.

The company took the product of a once-great but now sullied star and removed the taint. By highlighting the creativity, gumption, and sheer fun of young people with talent, Sony BMG redirected focus to the music, how it made us feel in 1983 when we first heard it, and how it makes us feel today.

Even companies without resources to commission dance troupes around the world can craft a marketing campaign that is relevant to the customer from product offering through ongoing conversation. Technically complex products lend themselves well to blogs and other in-depth, authoritative information services provided straight from the product manager or other trusted source.

Marketing messages and mediums

This advice is not just about new media. The challenge is to augment the methods already in the marketing toolbox — not displace them — and to incorporate new marketing knowledge in a manner that complements existing knowledge. As marketing mediums evolve and are combined in new ways, their power to influence messages changes.

Initiating contact with customers is no longer good enough. Marketers must understand which venues customers prefer to use and keep those lines of communication open.

Ready or not, customers are taking your brand and marketing into their hands. Providing and supporting the most valuable communication methods from both your and your customers’ perspectives will ensure higher satisfaction levels for your customers and increased profitability for your business.

Relevance seekers today are advised to expand their thinking well beyond the typical questions of features and benefits of products, services, and marketing channels. Features and benefits continue to be of significant importance, but they are only the starting point. Marketers must also consider the mediums that are most relevant for the delivery of the message.

That evaluation needs to be expanded beyond the questions of who is using this medium and what is the expense of using this medium. The evaluation also needs to include an assessment of how the medium itself influences the message, and whether the combined power of message content and message experience makes the effort more or less relevant to the customer.

As they have in the past, customers will continue to redefine relevance. And in that regard, the job of the marketer is similar to that of a parent. Both marketers and parents must observe their charges closely enough to stay two steps ahead of them.

To extend the analogy, parenting young children involves guiding behavior in largely controlled environments as provided by the parent. The challenge increases dramatically when those children become teens, at which point parents not only have to know what their children are doing, they also have to figure out where they are going, how they will get there, and how effectively they interpret what they experience. Welcome to the adolescence of customer-centric marketing.

Andrea M. Hill, former CEO of wholesale jewelry direct marketer The Bell Group, is the principal of Hill Management Consulting (, a Chicago-based marketing consultancy for small- and mid-size businesses.

McLuhan for marketers

When Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) wrote The Medium is the Message in 1964, he could not have imagined the changes at the beginning of this century. But his theory that messages are inextricably influenced by the medium in which they are carried is as true today as it was 44 years ago. Here are a few interesting McLuhan quotes:

  • Tomorrow is our permanent address.
  • If it works, it’s obsolete.
  • With telephone and TV it is not so much the message as the sender that is “sent.”
  • We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.
  • Invention is the mother of necessities.
  • When you are on the phone or on the air, you have no body.
  • All advertising advertises advertising.
  • The answers are always inside the problem, not outside.
  • When a thing is current, it creates currency.

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