If there is one abiding tendency that has characterized customer-focused companies in recent years, it is acceptance of the fact that customers want more than good products and good service if they are to put down roots and become loyal. I expect that tendency to continue well into the future, with the most progressive companies seeking creative ways to play a more meaningful role in the lives of their customers.
Customers gravitate to those companies that create the best value for them. In some cases, it is value for money they are looking for, and some companies do a commendable job of keeping costs and prices low, thereby offering great value for money. Others focus on creating high levels of emotional value and come to occupy a central place in the lives of their customers. Increasingly, companies will accept the fact that they must get the basics right in terms of product and service quality, and then they will move on to creating exceptional emotional value.
The companies with high levels of customer emotional loyalty are already there. They realize that they occupy a more meaningful position in the hearts and lives of their customers—they are more than a great place to buy stuff, more than a supplier. They have truly become trusted advisors, mentors and reliable partners in helping customers accomplish things that are important in their lives. They are contributing players in allowing their customers to be more successful in what they are trying to get done.
Not what you sell
There is a long-standing view in marketing circles that the products and services that we sell represent simply a means to an end. Remember the late Harvard Business School marketing guru Ted Levitt’s famous reference to the quarter-inch drill (“People don’t want a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”) But, it seems that relatively few firms think past what we do and what we sell to what we can make possible. In fact, much of what drives most businesses today, it seems to me, is all about selling things, rather than looking past the sale to consider what we can help the customer do. There is amazing potential in adopting the latter view, especially as customers look to partner with anyone who can help them get things done.
Customers gravitate to those companies that create the best value for them.
Some companies have embraced this view and are committed to understanding what the customer is setting out to get done and to trying to assist in a positive satisfying outcome. In North America, some supermarket chains offer cooking classes where customers can learn how to prepare exotic meals that will make them look good when neighbors and friends come to dinner.
The Home Depot, with its wonderful slogan, “you can do it; we can help,” is clearly positioned as a partner in helping the homeowner lay ceramic tile or hang wallpaper or create a weed-free lawn, all in the interest of making her home and garden more beautiful—that’s what she is trying to accomplish. She is looking for accolades and the satisfaction that comes from them. Home Depot is in the accolades business. The grout, wallpaper paste and fertilizer are all simply tools to help accomplish the goal. What’s missing is the knowledge on how to use the tools, and that’s where the Home Depot comes in.
Every business has the potential to become more than just a place to buy things. Those who achieve the status of partner cultivate a loyal group of customers who will sing their praises and share credit with them for their accomplishments and successes. So how can you get your company to this position in the lives of your customers? Many companies think they are there, but their customers will tell you they are not. To become partners in the lives of your customers, you and your employees must think past what the customer is buying to understand what the customer will do with what she is buying. How can you help her use it properly, to get the greatest value from it?
I see four essential steps in getting your firm to a place where you are, indeed, seen as an indispensable partner in making your customers look good and more successful:
- First, you need to make sure you have the basics covered—good products, fair prices and efficient processes. You will never reach the status of trusted partner if your core product fails to meet basic customer expectations. Things must work properly and be delivered on time, and you must be easy to deal with.
To get to this stage of customer involvement requires a couple of things. It requires a certain culture and orientation in your company; all employees have to think and behave in a certain way. This has implications for the kind of people you employ and how you equip and reward them. You need contextual intelligence—the kind of customer insight that won’t come from data mining. It requires that you talk with customers and use the right kind of research to find out the jobs customers are facing and where they need help. And it requires a creative streak that will come up with ideas that customers will find truly impressive.