Late in 2005, my long-time research partner, David J Mangen PhD, and I were bantering back and forth about the disparate views of company-customer relationships held by customers on one hand and the business community on the other.
Clearly there's a disconnect, and we surmised that it results from convoluted sets of un-validated assumptions about customers developed by marketers, advertisers and even the CRM community, and is then passed on to companies. Each profession has construed its own view of customers, each view heightening the importance of the holder (are we surprised?). Only those ornery customers just aren't playing their assigned roles, and they keep spoiling things.
Well, out of that idle conversation came a global investigation into what really triggers customer purchase selection - including, by association, what customers themselves view as customer-centric behaviour by companies. The title of the study report, released in May 2006, is Customers Say What Customers Don't Want to Hear, which tips off the tone of the report. Heck, there's not a gap between company and customer perceptions of how and why customers behave as they do. It's a chasm.
Why doesn't customer research prevent this?
Now how can this happen, considering the billions of dollars poured into customer research annually? Remarkably simple. Customer research, even customer satisfaction and VOC (voice of the customer research), deliberately limits the range of customer responses to what research sponsors, usually companies, want to know (not to mention what they want to hear).
Of course, research has to limit and organise response. Otherwise, there'd be no research findings, just lumps of disorganised, undecipherable raw data. But here's the catch. Researchers - Dr Mangen excluded, of course - customarily set customer response boundaries in accordance with commonly accepted business views of customers, thereby creating a closed loop and filtering out feedback that might challenge core business presumptions.
For example, a recent study I saw designed to assess, in part, customer experiences with company brands, assumes that the brand matters much to customers and significantly helps guide their behaviour, which is standard business lore. But customers challenge these assumptions with regard to considered purchases, as revealed in our study findings, ranking the brand a secondary driver of considered purchase decisions at best.
You know, why can't these darned customers stay in line and say what they're supposed to, in addition to doing what they're supposed to?
Getting outside the closed loop
To escape traditional research boundaries, we put on customer hats and designed a study from a customer perspective - as free as we could construct it of underlying business assumptions. The resulting web survey instrument turns the tables by asking customers to rate how a broad range of company behaviour influences their purchase decisions, rather than assessing customer behaviours from the company's perspective. When customers responded - minus the constraints imposed by pre-conceptions of what motivates them to buy - did they ever give us an earful. And their feedback is going to cause lots of consternation in lots of companies - not to mention in the marketing, advertising and CRM circles - before it stops reverberating.
Customers speak the truth…and the truth hurts
Never mind "darned" customers. It's "damn" customers now. Just listen to these outrageous utterings from collective customers.
Just offering good products doesn't win their business.
Neither does slobbering all over them like a friendly dog.
Companies have to offer good products and lavish attention on customers to win their business.
The company behaviour that contributes most to swaying purchase decisions, after making top-notch products, is empowering employees. Yeah, now customers are telling companies how to run their business.
Customer-focused behaviour means much more to customers than anything related to technology or directly supported by technology.
Not even making the radar screen as primary buying motivators are, and sit down before you read on…brand strength, online customer service, having a 360° view of customers, sharing company information across department lines - and especially deep in the toilet - cross-selling.
And I'm just scratching the surface. Customers put the lie to more marketing, advertising and CRM perceptions of what matters to customers than you can shake a stick at.
What will companies do as a result?
Now for the bottomline question - what are the chances that companies, plus their marketing, advertising and CRM advisors, are going to listen to customers? I wouldn't put down a wooden nickel to bet on business responding to customers. Why? Because entrenched business interests have too much to lose. In fact, we predict in the introduction to Customers Say What Companies Don't Want to Hear that more companies and support industry types are going to run from this information than read it.
What would happen if the business community took this customer input to heart?
Let me give you the short version:
Companies would reduce brand advertising, perhaps by as much as 20 per cent -greatly diminishing profits in the marketing and advertising communities, resulting in severe layoffs.
With diminished revenues, mass media would undergo wrenching changes, forcing organisational consolidation and closures.
Companies would scramble to market on the Internet, commercialising everything in sight - creating great clamour for a "commercial free zone."
And rather than investing more in CRM automation that creates internal efficiencies, rather than adding value to customers, companies would transfer their previous media advertising spending over to making organisational changes that help them become more customer-centric - leading to far more balanced approaches to approaching customers, and identifying that customer-centricity and CRM are anything but synonymous.
Good for customers? Not good, great! Good for the existing marketing advertising and CRM communities? Not good, disastrous. Which is why these industries are fighting so hard to maintain the status quo, thereby perpetuating the chasm between company and customer perceptions.
* Dick Lee is the author of The Sales Automation Survival Guide and the industry best-seller, The Customer Relationship Management Survival Guide.