Copernican Revolution

As we come to the end of 2004 and think about what we will do to improve our businesses in 2005, I have one New Year’s pledge I would like to ask each direct marketing executive to make: Put your customers first.

What do I mean?

Well, let me begin with what I do not mean. I am not suggesting that you be nice to your customers, though that is certainly a good thing. I’m also not suggesting that you print nice posters about how the customers are important and distribute them around your company.

I don’t think you should call a company meeting and ask everyone to raise his hand in agreement to the notion that customers are important, though that would not hurt.

Rather, what I mean is that customers need to be at the heart of your business strategy, organization, operations, products, and service.

This is a whole new way of looking at your business. To get started with this perspective, put yourself in customer mode.

Think of everything you experience as a customer of other businesses: customer-hostile Websites that mirror the organization’s internal structure; catalogs that make it tough to find products; frustrating conversations with call center reps; tax forms filled with jargon and needless complexity; cell phone rate plans structured for the benefit of the carrier’s network; health insurance claims rejected for arbitrary bureaucratic reasons…the list is endless.

I liken this experience and the way of doing business that produces these problems to the pre-Copernican view of the world. Like the misguided early notion that the universe revolves around the earth, many executives today still think that business revolves around them and their companies.

If that belief ever was true in the past, it certainly isn’t true today, in the Internet era. Whether online or offline, customers now have unparalleled power to research and transact with companies exactly when, where, and how they choose. There is a new world view at work that companies must either embrace or ignore at their peril.

Join the revolution

A recent article in The Harvard Business Review cites a frightening statistic: More than one-third of the senior officers and directors of American corporations spend little or no time discussing customers, customer experience, and how insights into customers should shape a company’s corporate strategy, product development, marketing, and other key initiatives.

So what should you do to put your customers first and join the Copernican Revolution? Bring customers into the heart of your business.

Start with a redefinition of marketing, direct marketing, strategy, and the role of customer experience. Direct marketers need to broaden their scope. Marketing professionals should be responsible for the customer experience, from the initial customer research to product selection to organizational design and culture to customer service and retention.

We also need to get senior management and key players out from behind their desks and directly in front of customers. In my experience, there is nothing more powerful than bringing executives to observe their customers browse and shop in stores, on the Web, by phone, and with catalogs.

I saw this fundamental change occur recently. At the beginning of an overhaul project for a major retailer, we ran a set of customer listening labs — open-ended observation environments where customers interact on the phone, on the Web, with the catalog, and with any other sales and marketing media. The executive team along with 35 key players from throughout the company attended eight one-on-one sessions with customers.

They arrived at the labs with a company-centered perspective, thinking they knew the issues to be fixed and the questions to be answered. At the end of a single day of research, they left with a new perspective and realized that they had to redesign their entire business. The way they’d structured the shopping experience mirrored the way their organization was set up, and these silos were blocking purchases. At the end of the day the president, who by that point recognized the need to turn the business upside down, also noted that significant revenue would result from such a change.

This brings me back to my 2005 New Year’s Pledge. If you do but one thing in 2005, make sure you bring your company together to directly observe customers. Charts, data, and metrics are not enough.

Senior officers and directors need to see real customers naturally interacting. This does not mean observing a focus group where opinions are thrown around. No, this is a pledge to see customers interacting with your business and you competitor, not opining about it.

What opportunities await you in 2005? Make the pledge to gain insight into your customers’ key unmet needs and behaviors, and those insights will show you the way to make significantly more money. Happy New Year.

Phil Terry is CEO of Creative Good, a strategic customer-experience consultancy.

To make it easy for you to live up to this recommended 2005 pledge, we are running free listening labs (Web, catalog, and call center) again for attendees at the Annual Catalog Conference, sponsored by Catalog Age and the Direct Marketing Association. The 2005 ACC will take place May 3-5 in Orlando, FL. To nominate your business for review, send an e-mail to

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