More Companies Are Listening to Customers, But Others Have Backtracked


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Has 2006 been a good year for customers? I definitely think it has been. Many companies have focused on implementing customer-oriented strategies; many others have made real efforts in understanding what customers want and value; and others have come up with creative and innovative ways of catching and sustaining the customers’ attention so they won’t go to the competition.

But not all has been golden. Companies have backtracked tremendously in their ways of making customers feel different, understood and special. Haven’t you seen that wonderful place where you get your coffee every morning behave in a different way? Are you getting the same customer experience you had a couple of years ago?

Are you feeling closer to retail stores on the web? Or are they still sending you the same advertising emails, forgetting your size and preferences? Has your bank or insurance company stopped sending you tons of mass marketing catalogs and campaign pieces that clearly show they don’t understand what you want to receive and how you want to receive it?

Even though real efforts have been made, we still have a long way to go in relating differently to customers and giving them a differentiated experience that makes them stay with us.

Stalled strategy
What has gone wrong? The theory is there. The systems are there. The consultants are there. Good companies to benchmark with are there. But why is it that customer strategies are still in their infancy in most markets? I believe it has to do with three easy things:

  1. Not understanding that it has to be a company-wide strategy, understood by all, of relating to customers differently and proving them with a total end-to-end customer experience
  2. Focusing on too many activities instead of implementing a simple, integrated system of activities with customers that are actionable and that can be monitored
  3. Forgetting that it all starts with knowing your customers very well and using that knowledge in every contact—in every interaction—so customers perceive that we remember them and that we sustain a relationship through time with them

Is this anything new? No. It is part of theory, available in many books, taught in many courses, which consultants remind us of every time they have the chance to. But companies still do not get it right.

Listen in the elevators. Listen in the call centers. Listen on the web.

Customer at the center
So how do you change? First, you have to recognize that customers must be at the center of the strategy. Many companies are focusing on growth and profitability to the exclusion of the customer. Yet, those two objectives are not at odds with putting customers at the center. On the contrary. Growth is achieved by retaining and growing customers and getting new ones. Products and innovation are key, but if, and only if, customers value what results of them. And customer-centric strategies, if implemented correctly, should add to profitability, not subtract from it.

Secondly, having too many activities confuses customers and makes it very difficult for a company to act consistently as one. If I were asked what I would focus on with customers during 2007, I would answer just three things:

  1. Getting to know your customers by really listening to them
  2. Integrating and managing consistently the multiple contact channels a company has with customers
  3. Good service—not just answering customers but really solving their questions and problems

When these three activities become habits within a company, many others can be added to an operating plan. If you master these three first, your customers will notice that “something is definitely happening” in your company.

Finally, I cannot stress enough the need to listen to customers to really know them. Listen in the elevators. Listen in the call centers. Listen on the web. Listen in the retail stores. Listen to those friends who are your customers. Listen and tell those who can act on the information within the company to make the difference.

I got a call a few months ago from a large company that needed some help in how to relate better with customers. This company produces toilet paper and similar products. They wanted me to help them develop a strategy for relating one to one with customers. Think about it. Would you like someone knowing how many times your family goes to the bathroom? Not at all. Relating with customers is not a standard recipe. There are many cases in which your customers should relate to your brand and to your company with the help of third parties. You should guarantee them a consistent experience. And you should focus on developing a strong relationship with your partners and your distribution channel instead.

I am really optimistic 2007 is going to be a great year. Customers are becoming more intelligent with time. That makes our challenge greater with every passing year. And, it’s the same thing with our competition. They are showing us new and innovative ways of dealing with customers and their experience. We’ll all have to push our brains to the limit. But please, do not forget to focus on a strategy known by everyone in your company. Listen a lot. Listen as raptly as if they were dinner guests in your home. Your customers will notice there is something really going on up there. And they won’t want to miss what comes next.

Olga Botero
C&S Customers and Strategy
Olga is an Information Technology executive with over 20 years of experience with large corporations in financial services, telecommunications and technology. She is the founding partner at C&S Customers and Strategy. Previously she has been CIO of Grupo Bancolombia, Director of Customer Service, Marketing Operations and Corporate Sales at Orbitel (UNE Telecomunicaciones) and Director of Quicken Business Unit at MECOsoft.


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