Letting in the Sunshine: Companies Increasingly Look to Their Customers To Grow the Business

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I recently wrote about how LEGO Group had incorporated customer input directly into the enterprise, utilizing both kids and adults as conduits of information and insight to help with product and concept development.

But it’s not all child’s play. Increasingly, companies in different industries are seeking customer guidance on everything from service evaluation to communication planning as a means of leveraging customer advocacy behavior and growing the enterprise. If other companies follow their examples, this could change the face of business in a positive way, for customers and for the businesses, themselves.

Southwest Airlines
Today, there’s very little argument that employee behavior directly and indirectly influences customer marketplace behavior, especially at critical engagement touch-points. Few industries experience as many opportunities for relationship success or failure, day after day, as airlines. Southwest Airlines, long known for having the highest perceived value and strongest levels of customer loyalty in the business, puts a great deal of emphasis on employee selection to make certain the company maintains its strong customer franchise. So important do Southwest leaders consider organizational alignment with customer needs, particularly in positions with direct customer contact, that each year the company hires only 3 percent of the pool of applicants: those the company has identified as most closely reflecting and representing Southwest’s unique culture and personality.

Selecting motivated and customer-oriented employees requires rigorous and creative interviewing and screening. Part of the multi-stage staff choice process at Southwest includes team interviewing of each applicant. Teams are made up of field and headquarters HR staffers, of course, but also loyal business and pleasure fliers. The teams quiz prospective employees on their most embarrassing moments and how they handled them; their greatest accomplishments; and how they would function in certain stressful passenger situations, such as cancelled flights.

That is because Southwest leaders recognize that marketing communication effectiveness builds from a foundation of how well the company meets or exceeds service promises, which, in turn, depends upon how well customer-facing employees execute. Current, loyal customers are among the best arbiters of whether the company is delivering on those promises, and Southwest leaders sees them as key in helping them identify individuals who will represent the kind of flying experience and brand perception that the company wants to demonstrate. Furthermore, company executives know that these customers have the best potential for both positive and negative word-of-mouth communication to others, another important reason to have their direct input.

John Deere
John Deere maintains a dealer advisory council for helping the company with merchandising, marketing and channel decisions. For instance, when the company made the decision to introduce entry-level products into The Home Depot, its retail advisory council both helped John Deere address the resistance some dealers felt and capitalize on the increased exposure among consumers. And, as John Deere increasingly has moved into non-farm products and simultaneously sought to make its retail experience more consumer-friendly, the advisory council has directly helped both with store layout and retail formatting.

An additional, and very specific, use of the advisory council’s direct input to marketing decisions has been John Deere’s focus on women. The company’s research indicated that women influence or directly make 80 percent of lawn tractor purchases, and the advisory council helped prepare clinics for women to learn about lawn care and the company’s products. This has been essential in building relationships with dealers and customers in this marketing push.

John Deere is also proactive in having customers, themselves, directly contribute to product and service development. A good example of this is the company’s golfing products line. Each year, John Deere flies groundskeepers from around the country to its headquarters in Moline, Illinois, for the purpose of providing direct input to design and production staff on its golf course equipment development.

Dorothy Lane Markets
Known as "the store that accommodates," Dorothy Lane, a three-store high-end specialty supermarket chain in suburban Dayton, Ohio, prides itself on exceptional customer service. While it carries many products that are similar to conventional supermarkets, the store is noted for its extensive selection of perishable and specialty items, artisan products and natural and organic foods.

One of Dorothy Lane’s approaches for generating customer insight, and optimizing each customer’s shopping experience, is unique within the supermarket industry. Each of the three stores maintains a Consumer Advisory Board, a cross-section of Dorothy Lane Markets shoppers who offer suggestions for improvement. The advisory board, with members recruited to serve a two-year term, meets regularly at the store.

Harley-Davidson
More companies are successfully using online communities and forums, and also closely knit clubs. Organizations such as Amazon, eBay, Classmates and QVC, are excellent examples of businesses that have lively online forums and actively solicit their customer community for suggestions on making the business better. Clubs, if they have a compelling theme or active community of interest, can function in much the same way.

Owners of Harley-Davidson motorcycles who are members of the Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) clubs around the world, for instance, are very visible advocates for the brand. Not only do they buy the motorcycles, but also they actively accessorize with Harley-Davidson equipment for their choppers, wear a vast array of Harley-Davidson clothing and enthusiastically participate in Harley-Davidson events. Starting with fewer than 50 members in 1983, H.O.G. has grown to more than 800,000 members, more than half of whom attend at least one Harley-Davidson event per year. H.O.G. members, as a consequence, know a great deal about what it means to be Harley owners.

How important are H.O.G. zealots to the company? Harley-Davidson does almost no advertising, depending, instead, upon its community of advocates to purchase both motorcycles and logo gear—and spread the word to others. Customer advocacy has an impact on virtually every area of company activity. As John Russell, managing director of Harley-Davidson Europe, has said: "If it is important to the customer; if it’s a good insight; if it’s a good point of understanding and connection to the customer, it makes its way into business processes and becomes part of what we do." That’s powerful recognition of direct customer input’s value

Companies have come full circle in relationships with customers. Partnership and relationship are words being used once again by marketers. Pull strategies are replacing push strategies in product and service offerings. Making the company visible to customers, and the customers visible to companies, is like letting sunshine bathe plants. The perspectives and direct input of customers will definitely grow the enterprise.

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