What Customer-Centric, Customer-Obsessed Companies Must Do

In building relationships with and value for customers, my longtime observation is most organizations tend to progress through several stages of performance: customer awareness, customer sensitivity, customer focus and customer obsession. Here is the “executive summary” version of some conditions of each stage.

In building relationships with and value for customers, my longtime observation is most organizations tend to progress through several stages of performance: customer awareness, customer sensitivity, customer focus and customer obsession.

Here is the “executive summary” version of some conditions of each stage.

Customer Awareness
Customers are known, but in the aggregate. The organization believes it can select its customers and understand their needs. Measurement of performance is rudimentary, if it exists at all; and customer data are siloed. There’s a traditional, hierarchical, top-down management model, with “chimneyed” or “smokestack” communication (goes up or down, but not horizontal) with little evidence of teaming.

Customer Sensitivity
Customers are known, but still mostly in the aggregate. Customer service is somewhat more evident (though still viewed as a cost center), with a focus on complaint and problem resolution (but not proactive complaint generation; internal groups tend to point fingers and blame each other for negative customer issues). Measurement is mostly around customer attitudes and functional transactions, i.e. satisfaction, with little awareness of emotional relationship drivers. The organization has a principally traditional, hierarchical, top-down management model, with “chimneyed” or “smokestack” communication (goes up or down, but not horizontal), with some evidence of teaming (mostly in areas of complaint resolution).

Customer Focus
Customers are both known and valued, down to the individual level, and they are recognized as having different needs, both functional and emotional. The customer life cycle is front-and-center; and performance measurement is much more about emotion and value drivers than satisfaction. Service and value provision is regarded as an enterprise priority; and customer stabilization and recovery are goals when problems or complaints arise. Communication and collaboration with customers, between employees, and between employees and customers is featured. Management model and style is considerably more horizontal, with greater emphasis on teaming to improve customer value processes.

It’s notable that, at this more evolved and advanced stage of enterprise customer-centricity, complaints are thought of more in terms of a life cycle component, and recovery is more of a strategy than a resolution.

Customer Obsession
Throughout the organization, customer needs and expectations—especially those that are emotional—are well understood, and response is appropriate (and often proactive).

Everyone is involved in providing value to customers—from C-suite to front-line—and everyone understands his/her role. Customer behavior is recognized as essential to enterprise success, and optimal relationships are sought.

Performance measurement is focused, and shared, on what most monetizes customer behavior (loyalty, emotion and communication metrics—such as brand-bonding and advocacy—replace satisfaction and recommendation).

Customer service (along with pipelines and processes) is an enterprise priority, and seen as a vital, and profitable, element of value delivery.

The management model is far more horizontal, replacing traditional hierarchy; and there is an emphasis on teaming and inclusion of customers to create or enhance value.

Companies that are customer-obsessed, and what makes them both unique and successful, have been extensively profiled by consultants and the business press. Often, they go so far as to create emotionally driven, engaged and even branded experiences for their customers, strategically differentiating them from their peers.

In addition, these companies focus on the complete customer life cycle, and much more on retention, loyalty and risk mitigation (and even winback) than acquisition. Support experiences are strategic, nimble and seamless, and often omnichannel. Multiple sources of data are used to develop insights. Recognizing the information needs of their customers, they invest in altruistic content creation (over advertising); and they communicate proactively and in as personalized a manner as possible

Customer obsession, what I refer to as “inside-out” customer-centricity, has been a frequent subject of my blogs and articles: One of Albert Einstein’s iconic quotes reflects the complete dedication of resources and values needed for an organization to optimize its relationships with customers: “Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master.” Mastery requires, as well, a storehouse of experience coming from experimentation; so, just like in the pole vault and high jump, we can expect that the customer-centricity bar will continue to be raised.

Hello, Complaint Department? My Friends Are Listening

If it costs five times more to acquire a new customer than to keep one, why do brands continue to try and ignore customer complaints? For as long as there have been businesses selling goods and services, there have been complaint departments. And I’m guessing that as the number of sales increased, so did the number of complaints. So why did it take until the creation of the Internet and the popularity of social media for so many businesses to really start to address customer satisfaction issues?

If it costs five times more to acquire a new customer than to keep one, why do brands continue to try and ignore customer complaints?

For as long as there have been businesses selling goods and services, there have been complaint departments. And I’m guessing that as the number of sales increased, so did the number of complaints. So why did it take until the creation of the Internet and the popularity of social media for so many businesses to really start to address customer satisfaction issues?

In the early 1970’s, interactive voice response (IVR) technology came into vogue. While it was designed to service high call volumes, reduce costs and improve the customer experience, we all know it was a great way to avoid actually talking to customers—especially those with complaints.

As companies got bigger, somebody decided that titles like “customer service rep” weren’t friendly enough, or didn’t accurately describe the importance of the position. (Perhaps because they didn’t actually provide service? Well, that’s a topic for another day.)

That said, titles changed to be things like “Customer Relationship Specialist” or “Customer Interaction Management Specialist” (I kid you not). But it didn’t change the job function … nor the attitude or behavior of the rep who was supposedly resolving your complaint.

As complaints soared, so did the many ways businesses tried to avoid a direct dialogue with those harboring a complaint. Once consumers discovered that pressing “0” usually connected one with a live body, businesses changed that option. I recently called one financial institution to complain that the ATM had eaten my card (yes, I was standing in front of the machine reading the teeny-tiny 800 number posted to the machine in the least obvious location). I probably went through five or six different “menu” options before I finally got someone live on the phone who told me that he had never heard of an ATM eating a card before. So I guess he felt it was helpful to call me a liar. Hmmm …

Next came the Web—and with it the “Contact Us” page. But once again, businesses became overwhelmed with the number of consumers who wanted to have a dialogue with them. Now when you visit “Contact Us,” there’s a form to fill out or worse—no email or phone number, but just a link to “Commonly Asked Questions & Answers” or “Popular Topics” or, one of my favorites, “Where’s My Stuff?”

Have you ever tried to call Amazon? Yeah. Good luck finding a phone number. I will say that I had a problem with my Kindle and, after quite a bit of scouring around the website, found a phone number from a dialogue in a Kindle forum. I called it and got GREAT customer service (I think it was Bob’s first call all day because he actually sounded happy to help me).

Now the Web has created a whole new business complaint system—and it’s for all the world to see. From the formalized review process of Yelp and Angie’s List to sites that let you rate your experience with a product/service like OpenTable.com or Hotels.com, you can whine all you want and it’s very difficult for the brands to respond/resolve (even if they wanted to).

It’s easy to go to a company’s Facebook page and post a rant (I’ve seen some really ugly comments posted on some of the biggest brands’ Facebook pages).

I know these public forums can be an extremely unfair system—especially to smaller businesses who live and die from customer reviews. And I know that not everyone is reasonable with their expectation about a product/service, nor do all consumers have legitimate complaints (although they may feel otherwise).

So here’s my suggestion: If you want to build a positive image of your brand, create a culture that allows for customer feedback and conflict resolution. Make it easy for customers to find a phone number, call you and speak to a live person and/or email you and get a fast response. Empower your reps to resolve issues quickly and fairly—perhaps invest in training them how to listen with empathy, and how to make a decision to do “the right thing.” Spend less time and money on “satisfaction surveys” (which I personally dislike) and more time on “creating satisfaction.”

Net-net, treat every customer as if they were your most valuable asset—because they are. It will return a bigger ROI than any marketing campaign investment.

Stephanie Miller’s Engagement Matters: Why Good Email Gets Blocked as Bad

Our first step in email marketing return on investment is to reach the inbox. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Yet, I’m always amazed at how many email marketers either don’t appreciate the negative impact of blocked messages or don’t know what they don’t know.

Our first step in email marketing return on investment is to reach the inbox. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Yet, I’m always amazed at how many email marketers either don’t appreciate the negative impact of blocked messages or don’t know what they don’t know.

There’s no shame here. Every email marketer gets blocked occasionally, even if you have permission or generally follow best practices. The best defense is good offense: Be knowledgeable on the root causes of blocking, respect subscribers and measure inbox deliverability.

This is no tree in the proverbial forest. If your messages don’t reach the inbox, they won’t earn a response. It’s not something that happens to “that other guy.” In fact, about 20 percent of legitimate, permission-based email marketing messages and newsletters never make it to the inbox, according to a study by Return Path earlier this year. (Full disclosure, I work for Return Path).

Any lift in inbox placement goes right to the bottom line. All your metrics (e.g., opens, clicks, page views, conversions, ad revenues, etc.) will rise concurrently. The good news is that marketers can absolutely impact how messages are treated by ISPs like Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail, and corporate system administrators.

Do not delegate inbox deliverability — a very important step to ROI — even if you delegate delivery. Your email broadcast vendor or ESP can’t do this for you. It’s a shared responsibility. A good broadcast vendor will operate an efficient delivery system, give you full reporting that includes actual inbox placement (Note: this is NOT your bounce rate) and help you follow best practices. However, no vendor can control your message content, frequency and acquisition practices. The buck stops with the marketer or sender.

You need the following four things to reach the inbox consistently and earn a response:

1. A solid infrastructure. For either an in-house system or a vendor, check frequently to be sure you know that your infrastructure is sound (e.g., proper reverse DNS, MX records, authentication and volume throttling) and your bounces are managed properly. Make sure you fully understand the metrics used in reporting as well.

2. Low complaints. There’s a penalty for irrelevancy in email marketing that doesn’t exist in other channels. It’s called “complaints.” A complaint is registered every time a subscriber clicks the “Report Spam” button. It only takes a few complaints to get all your messages blocked at Yahoo, Gmail or corporations (which use many of the same data sources). Subscribers complain when they’re not happy or interested in your messages, even if they’re customers and gave you permission. They complain even when they claim to love your brand.

Yikes! Imagine what would happen if Yahoo or another major ISP blocked all your messages for the next 30 days (the length of time many deliverability failures take to correct). Revenue would drop like a brick and you’d be under the spotlight to explain why your mailing practices earned such a wallop.

Relevant messages have low complaint scores. It’s the single most powerful factor in a good sender reputation, which dictates if your messages reach the inbox and earn a high response. It’s up to marketers and publishers to engage subscribers with every message rather than assume an opt-in gives you license to send whatever you want whenever you want.

Increase relevancy by developing a subscriber-focused content strategy. Address the editorial needs, buying cycles and life stages of your subscribers. New subscribers may welcome more email than long-time subscribers — or the opposite may be true. Tailor messages for subscribers who are up for product or service renewal, have recently purchased, visited a particular section of your website, abandoned their shopping cart, clicked but didn’t convert, downloaded a whitepaper, or haven’t opened or clicked in the last quarter.

3. A clean file. Keep a clean list by doing the following:

  • Be sure everyone on your email marketing file really wants to be there. Offer choices and make it easy to unsubscribe and change preferences.
  • Try to win back fatigued subscribers who are ignoring you early in the relationship. If you see a customer hasn’t opened or clicked in the past 90 days, you may have an opportunity to re-engage.
  • If someone hasn’t opened or clicked in 12 months, take them off your file.
  • Only accept subscribers from legitimate sources — e.g., your own website, partners you vet carefully and publishers with high sender reputations. It may be nice to have a large file, but it’s always better to have a file that’s more responsive and engaged.

4. Good reporting. You can’t manage or optimize what you don’t know. Track complaint data by signing up for all ISP feedback loops, and quickly remove those subscribers who complain. (Detailed instructions can be found here.) Be sure you actually know your inbox deliverability rate, by campaign and message type. This is not your bounce rate (typically 1 percent to 5 percent), but the actual number of messages that reach the inbox. You must seed your campaigns to get this data. If your email broadcast system or vendor isn’t reporting this to you, ask them for it.

What are you doing to better manage inbox placement as part of your response metrics? Let me know what you think by sharing any ideas or comments below.