Only Connect

Few brands fully leverage their merchandising concept. Profits, products, services, experiences, and shareholder value are left on the table because companies are falling short… falling short in listening skills, that is. Brands may have synced up their channels, but they haven’t yet gotten fully in sync with all their customers’ needs.

Attention, brand managers, marketing strategists, and merchants: When is the last time you did any of the following?

  • Bought, used, and thoroughly immersed yourself in one of your brand’s products?
  • Sat down in person with one of your customers to have a conversation about his needs as they relate to your brand?
  • Responded personally to a customer’s e-mail?
  • Sat with your customer care representatives and listened in on calls, both for orders and for service issues?
  • Collected real-life data about your customers through cameras or diaries or by following them around unobtrusively to monitor product usage?
  • Bought your product and three of your competitors’ similar products and asked your customers to give honest evaluations?
  • Invited your customers to be advisers to your brand?
  • Invited your customers to come work for your brand?
  • Invited your customers to product development meetings?
  • Invited your customers to be “brand ambassadors” or be in your ads?

I ask these questions not to make you feel guilty but to remind you that talking about getting close to your customers is not the same thing as doing it. Too few brands actually do it. Too often, significant merchandising, marketing, and creative decisions are made based on rumors about customers, generic data-card customer demographics, or dated or bad (or worse, nonexistent!) customer information. We lack one-on-one personal conversations with customers, we lack first-hand observation, and we lack genuine customer intimacy. It’s time to get personal.

If you were intimate with your customers, you would notice the little things about them. You would be able to pick up on what they like and don’t like, what irritates them, what brings them joy. You would know what was in their wallet, on their iPod, and on their desk. You would pay attention to their entire life, not just the slice of life that interacts with your product. You would know them as well as you know some of your dear friends. It is when this intimate knowledge is used properly that your merchandising concept can develop wings and take your brand further.

Many brands treat their customers like distant relatives. Companies send the obligatory e-mails, visit on holidays, show up when they are supposed to, but they never develop that intimate, long-lasting relationship that could lead them to significant growth. Few brands understand that their customers have the potential to be their dear friends if only they would be treated so.

Why bother? Well, it’s apparent to me that companies that do bother are the ones that earn their customers’ “share of heart” — a relational-based economic term even more important than “share of wallet.” Companies that listen have an edge. By making customer intimacy a priority they can create truly customer-centric experiences and fully optimize their merchandising concept.

For Jim Cabela, cofounder of outdoor gear cataloger/retailer Cabela’s, this is nothing new. Cabela is a listener. He does treat customers like friends — because many of them indeed are! He starts his day by personally addressing customer complaints that came in the day before. He hires avid sportsmen and sportswomen as associates and requires them to use and test products monthly. By staying close to their customers (walking a mile in their fly-fishing waders!), Cabela and his employees have grown the Cabela’s brand so that it has become known as “a hunter’s and fisherman’s Disneyland.” The Sidney, NE-based company, which started out selling tiny fishing flies, now encompasses the ability to sell recreational fishing properties with price tags of more than $2 million.

L.L. Bean has a similar story. The company started out selling a functional hunting boot. Leon Leonwood Bean’s original philosophy of customer-centeredness still permeates the company today and is no doubt why it has grown to top $1.5 billion in sales.

L.L. said, “A customer is the most important person ever in this office — either in person or by mail. A customer is not an interruption of our work; he is the purpose of it.” By being intimately involved with their customers and understanding their outdoor lifestyles and values, L.L.Bean has been able to expand its customers’ share of heart. The outdoor life remains central to L.L. Bean’s merchandising concept, but the Freeport, ME-based cataloger/retailer now looks at its customers with a full-life, 360-degree view. This has enabled Bean to broaden its merchandising concept to include travel products, home decor, and products for future sportsmen and sportswomen. Key to this merchandising success is a group of 1,000 independent field testers “hanging out” with products, making sure they exceed the expectations of other like-minded customers. Bean makes it a strategic priority to listen and collaborate with customers. It welcomes the interruptions.

Customer collaboration is a hallmark of the consumer packaged goods world. From Ben & Jerry’s to Kleenex, this industry knows how to get close to its customers. And it has fun doing it. These companies have brought customers into their brands and product development processes through flavor-creation contests, art contests, and “people’s choice” campaigns. Procter & Gamble has led the way for years in conducting in-home, real-life product usage surveys and observations. Dove and Toyota use real customers in their ads. These companies care. They listen; they collaborate; they create; they build intimate brands that gain trust all across America.

Everyone knows that Harley-Davidson’s customers have quite an independent streak. The revenue from the accessories they buy to customize their bikes and the licensed clothes they wear has far exceeded that from Harley’s core offering of 35 bike models. Customization has won the hearts not just of Harley owners but of all sorts of other independent customers across all sorts of categories.

Food gift companies such as Godiva and Wolferman’s have long offered customers the chance to customize their gifts through personalized ribbons, greeting cards, and mix-and-match food offerings. Other gifters let customers go all the way for a totally customized gift. Vermont Teddy Bear, for instance, offers a personalized Flower Child Bear and Pope Bear, to name just two of the bears its customers created. Customers love the chance to collaborate on product development.

Some multichannel marketers connected their customer demographic dots and realized that their loyal customer base was creating a potential new customer base. Thus Pottery Barn gave birth to Pottery Barn Kids and then PBTeen, Talbots to Talbots Kids, Boden to Mini Boden, Crate & Barrel to CB2 and Land of Nod. The list grows every day.

These launches may have failed if they were just demographically driven. But because these merchants treated their customers as friends, they were able, through trust, to expand their merchandising concepts into the next generation as their customers’ lifestyles change.

So how can we do more than merely say we listen to our customers? How can we let them get in on the product development action? How can we optimize our merchandising concepts with their help?

Start now. Challenge your merchants to discover five things about five customers they didn’t know before — nuances about their lives or about your brand reputation in their eyes or about your products’ strengths and/or weaknesses. Discuss these as a team. What are the threads? How can they be woven together? How can they be developed in ways that enhance your merchandising concept?

Play a game with your customers. Perhaps invite zany personalization on a product or two and see what happens. Ask for their feedback. Give out a prize. Have some fun. Learn, and do something from the results!

Call a customer. Better yet, take him to lunch. Let him vent about one of your products and a few of your competitors’ products as well. If the customer is a woman, after lunch ask if she wouldn’t mind sharing a few things that are in her purse. Frequent-buyer cards, makeup brands, photos of loved ones, the thousands of keys we carry say a lot.

Be bold. Bring customers to your regularly scheduled product development meetings. Let them talk directly with the team. Talk to them about all the details. You’ll be glad you did.

As E.M. Forster wrote, “Only connect!” So go ahead, treat your customers like friends. Let them be your joyful interrupters. Get in sync with their lives. Be your brand’s chief intimacy officer. It’s a new title, but the results are proven!

Andrea Syverson is president of IER Partners, a branding and merchandising consultancy in Black Forest, CO.

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